Housing Complex

What Goes on at Capitol Hill’s International Graduate University?

"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.

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  • Amy Hubbard

    International Graduate University also is not accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body for higher education in the Mid-Atlantic. Any respectable college or university should be accredited by Middle States. http://www.msche.org/

  • http://blog-teachingsolutions.org/blog/category/praxis-ii/ Praxis II test

    I think that any university or college should be accredited by Middle States if its is not then students who passed out can have some problems to go to other countries for job.

  • AEW

    How does the organization retain its 501(c)(3) status if it's not doing any of the 501(c)(3) activities? If you want to own property in the city and do nothing with it, you have to pay taxes like everyone else.

  • Amy

    I think the city should look into taking it back through eminent domain. Give him his $2 million back and do something productive with the property. It's ridiculous that it's wasting away in the middle of Capitol Hill.

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  • Curious George

    Have you checked the organization's 990s? Keep digging, City Paper. Something is fishy about this deal. If you don't uncover it, who will?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com michele p

    I stopped in somewhere around the year 2000, and actually had a conversation with the director of this school. As depicted in this article, the conversation was very disjointed, and I definitely left with the impression that something very fishy is going on here. The hallways are lined with crystal chandeliers from the old Hechinger's Store up at Benning Road, just for one example of how strange the interior. There was absolutely no-one else around, and it was an altogether strange, dis-jointed experience. - as if the man is running a scam. I got the impression he receives grant monies, then pays people to do the renovation and maintenance the place needs. Tommy Wells' office should definitely demand an accounting from this guy. I am quite confident that he is not actually doing what he purports to be doing.

  • Heather M

    I'm quite sure the plural of attorney is not "attorney’s." What a sloppy mistake for any journalist to make.

  • Ruth Samuelson

    Heather M: That was actually a direct quote from the spokesperson's e-mail.

  • http://dynamodata.fdncenter.org/990_pdf_archive/541/541075268/541075268_200712_990.pdf Elisha

    The link above is the 990 form for the International Graduate University; detailing 5M in assets (including the campus at purchase price), it also lists officers directors and trustees of the institution.

  • Keith

    If he sells the property, the proceeds must be used for charitable purposes even if the entity itself liquidates. Thus, as a technical matter, this should foreclose the possibility of a personal benefit to Boek, but who knows what his plans would be.

  • M

    Having attended an event at this school and interacted with Mr. Boek and some of the students and faculty, this article gives an incomplete picture at best. First of all, the school might well be described as providing continuing education in more cerebral topics, such as democracy promotion. You might even call it a think tank in a way, though it doesn't have the financing to host conferences or promote its work.

    And the article should note that Dr. Boek (he does have the degree to warrant such a title) is very advanced in his years, which may help to explain his inability to clearly answer the reporter's questions. The neighbors should even go so far as to talk with Dr. Boek, who I found to be a very nice guy.

    Dr. Boek may be trying to achieve the impossible in this building but there really is no justification in assuming anything nefarious is going on. He clearly believes he can make his school into something important on the national stage. And from what I understand, Councilwoman Ambrose spent several years fighting Mr. Boek's purchase of the land, so I'd definitely take her comments with a grain of salt (or sour grapes).

    In the end, this article could have been written as the story of a guy with a dream, even if that dream may be past its prime. As written, it seems to have been designed to denigrate Mr. Boek instead of answering the legitimate question of what goes on at the International Graduate University.

  • Caty

    I worked for Boek when he was running National Graduate University in the Clarendon area of Arlington 30 years ago. There were no students and rarely did the "faculty" show up. There are so many strange things I could tell you about that place and that man. I still get the heebie-jeebies when I think about it.

    Anyway, I knew at only 18 the place was a tax shelter. I didn't know how it made money. But Boek and his wife lived in a mansion in Foxhall.

  • Lynz

    Ok, so it's been a year since they lost their bid for a charter school. Anyone know the latest with this? If Dr. Boek wants to own a large, vacant building, that is just fine...but he needs to be paying the full property tax burden that comes with owning a vacant building.

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  • Will

    I think we need some fresh investigation into IGU from the only real journalists in town, WCP staff. I called over today on a whim, and after about two minutes of crackling tin can sounds, someone finally said hello.

    Our conversation was perplexing, I said I lived in the area and was interested in a course catalog. They wanted my phone number so they could call me back, but wouldn't tell me what courses were offered. I gave them my address and asked for a course catalog, we'll see if I get one. Their website has not been updated since 2008.

    I just don't know what to make of this place.

    I would love it if Georgetown or GWU would use it as a satellite campus instead, heck, it's a block from the metro! We need some legitimate activity here, not some sham institution.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tjvanhouten Ted

    It looks like Walter Boek passed away last year:

    http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/washingtonpost/obituary.aspx?pid=161304380#fbLoggedOut

    I wonder what happens now? Will the mystery continue, or will his family look to sell the property? Some developer must have their eye on the real estate. And maybe they can redevelop the Safeway next door along with it.

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