“Democracy Hall of Fame International” part of the International Graduate University
Roughly a decade ago, the city sold off a bunch of school buildings. One became a gym. Others became condo buildings. Here’s one of the more mysterious cases.
An institution named the “International Graduate University” should have a grand entrance. Perhaps a wrought iron archway with a Latin inscription atop some granite steps where students sit and chat between classes.
Yet the front of this Capitol Hill school of higher learning has no such archway. It hosts no impromptu student gatherings, or much other activity to speak of. Instead of strolling through the International Graduate University’s doors on 13th Street SE, students walk around the corner, past some thick hedges, into a nondescript entry on D Street. There’s an American flag dangling overhead.
Nor is this path particularly well-trodden. Sightings of students—hell, of anyone—coming in and out of the International Graduate University are episodic. The blocklong building generally just sits there, in a gentrified section of Capitol Hill where neighbors know what other neighbors are up to. No amount of dog-walking and sidewalk gossiping, though, has unraveled the mystery of this institution, which has been there for a decade.
“Walking into it is almost a la-la land,” says neighbor Peter Theil, 64. “It’s kind of an odd place. I just don’t understand. None of us understand.”
“I can’t remember the last time I actually saw students,” says Mark Segraves, the WTOP reporter, who lives in the neighborhood. He’s heard a band practicing in the building and recalls seeing adult students assisting with lawn maintenance a few years back, but not lately. “You see very little activity there, day or night.”
Decades ago, this community dead zone was filled with students. Students, that is, of the Buchanan School. Like other schools in the depopulating District, Buchanan fell victim to declining enrollment, closing in 1992; it was sold in 1998 to the highest bidder. That just happened to be an adult education school—-under the leadership of Walter E. Boek—-which paid $1.56 million for the property.
This yellow tape delineates the property where Boek’s land ends. This is the 13th Street view of International Graduate University.
Boek had big plans to move his Arlington-based “language, computer training and government education school” to Capitol Hill, where proximity to Congress would ennoble his institution. It would occupy “a prestigious red brick home,” according to a June 2000 article in The Hill.
Boek’s vision was apparently good enough for city officials, who were desperate to cash in on school properties. Some schools were turned into condo buildings. One became a Results gym. And others, like Boek’s purchase, just happened.
“It was essentially a quick sale,” says former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
“You paid your money and you had it.” The site is now worth $9.86 million, according to its 2009 assessment, though its 501(c)3 status means that the school pays no property taxes.
These days, when the city develops school sites, it solicits developer proposals, then pledges to hold community meetings to decide the buildings’ fates. Last December, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty offered up 11 former school sites for developers. Some campuses, like Hine Junior High School (a few blocks west of the International Graduate University’s property), received roughly 10 competing plans. Recently, that group was narrowed to six.
Busybodies on the eastern fringes of Capitol Hill wish that Boek had faced such a healthy field of competitors.
“We don’t know what the city’s done,” says Theil. “Is he actually teaching there?…That building, it just sits there, and something good could be done with it.”
Well, at least the International Graduate University has the nomenclatural trappings of a real institution of higher learning. It’s broken down into three schools: the College of Management, the College of Human Services, and the College of Democracy. When asked what sort of instruction goes on in these schools, Boek gives vague responses. A typical exchange:
Washington City Paper: What do people go on to do with these degrees? Boek: Oh, they work in the human services field. They run programs. They do all kinds of things. And most of them are in them already when they come. They’re adults.
There’s also the School of Self-Promotion: Pictures of Boek with hundreds of movers and shakers are hung at the school.
In the “Democracy Hall of Fame International”—what appears to be an old all-purpose room—there’s a stage lined with photographs of famous people who’ve visited the university, including the Dalai Lama.
Boek’s office is also practically wallpapered with shots of him and various prominent politicians and international dignitaries.There are shots of various congressional reps (Former reps. Tom Tancredo, R-Co., Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Tom Davis, R-Va.), local officials (former Councilmember Carol Schwartz, and Council Chair Vincent Gray), and other nationally and internationally known figures (Colin Powell and civil rights activist Dorothy Height).
In 1994, Boek won the Outstanding Alumni Award from his alma mater, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His application for the award included a section titled “Pictorial Review of Some of the Activities of Walter E. Boek,” featuring shots of Boek with President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, and former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. There’s also a photo of Boek “discussing world trade issues with a diplomat from an embassy.”
Boek intimates that all of these people are his friends. As we walk along the wall of his office, I randomly pluck one name out—Tancredo—to see if he’ll share some details of their relationship.
Here’s the discussion:
Washington City Paper: Did you know him well, Thomas Tancredo? Boek: Which one? WCP: Thomas Tancredo. Boek: He was a congressman. WCP: But, you didn’t know him that well, personally? Boek: I knew him quite well. WCP: You knew him quite well—how did you know him? Boek: Well, I’ve known a number of congressman. Because we’ve got mutual interests, and there we were at one program together somewhere.
Through a spokesperson, Tancredo said that “he does not know Mr. Boek.”
Boek tried to use his congressional contacts-cum-photo-posers to further his ambitions for the International Graduate University.
“He wrote to Congress to ask them to charter him as a university,” says Ambrose. “He literally wrote a letter that said ‘Dear Congress.’ He gave me a copy of it because he wanted me to follow up with letters of support.”
“He always held it out to be what he calls ‘a university,’” but he never could fully explain what he was going to do, says Ambrose. She understood that the school would hold job-training and English-as-a-second-language classes.
After a while, Ambrose lost track of what was happening. “Quite frankly, [the] squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she says—and Boek does what he does pretty quietly.
Part of the quiet act is something that Boek’s school is lacking—accreditation, that is.
According to Jennifer Jenkins, a spokesperson for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the school formerly “had a license to operate as a postsecondary institution” but lost it. Jenkins, however, refused to say when the license had been revoked, and whether the license defined Boek’s school as a university with legitimate degree programs or a professional school with certificate-granting programs.
“I cannot comment because the matter is being reviewed by our attorney’s,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail.
Boek acknowledges that the school is not accredited, though he says that’s not his fault.
“They don’t know what they’re doing at the moment,” says Boek about the OSSE. More than a year ago, the staff asked Boek to reapply for accreditation, he says. One of his staff members—a dean, he says—calls over to the OSSE constantly. They’re not accepting his paperwork.
“They’re not sure what they want to do. It will come some time. We hope soon, but we can’t push them too much,” he says.
Even an unaccredited school can attract a student or two. On a recent Thursday night, Boek ducked into three classrooms to say hello to his adult pupils. Donald Simons sat waiting for his classmates to arrive for a 6:30 addiction counseling class. He expects his certificate soon, then he has to complete 200 internship hours, and then he hopes to become a full-time addiction counselor. So far, he likes the school, and likes Boek—though they’ve had limited contact.
“We acknowledge each other. But he’s a good man,” says Simons. One time Boek offered to put him in touch with someone at a downtown shelter who might be able to provide a work opportunity for him. “He gives his heart, he’ll conversate with you.…He just likes helping people; he’s very educated,” says Simons.
Simons was surprised to hear that the International Graduate University doesn’t have a license—but didn’t seem particularly outraged. He figured Boek would have everything squared away soon, clearing the way for him to work on his enrollment numbers. “I think they’re aiming to bring more students in—they’re really lacking in that department,” says Simons.
When City Paper called to schedule a photograph, Boek declined, perhaps because we couldn’t include a smiling senator as part of the deal. Boek explained that the school is run by a board of governors and that he isn’t in charge of its day-to-day operations—although he’d picked up the phone.
It was time to get to the heart of the matter: How would Boek describe his role at the university? “Well, I’m not sure how you do that,” he says. “I think you probably have enough information already.”
Top image by Darrow Montgomery. Second image by Ruth Samuelson. An abridged version of this story will appear in this week’s newspaper available tomorrow.