Housing Complex

School’s Out

International Graduate University in D.C.: What Is It, and Why Don't Neighbors Like It?

From the outside, the former Buchanan School at 13th and D streets SE looks like it’s been abandoned and never put back to use. The massive, four-building campus has no activity during the day, and a few windows lit up at night are the only indication of what goes on inside. It’s not an uncommon sight: Dozens of District school buildings have been decommissioned over the years as the city’s population of young people has shrank. Those buildings have found new life as condos, nonprofit offices, or homeless shelters.

The Buchanan School, though, is neither abandoned nor finding new life.

For the last 13 years, the property has been the domain of Walter Boek, an elderly ex-professor with the best intentions. The interior is brilliantly clean and well-maintained, but also oddly antique; chandeliers hang from the ceilings on the first floor and faded paintings grace the hallways. Boek’s organization is called the International Graduate University, and indeed, there are the trappings of an academic institution: A bulletin board with reminders of tuition and theses due, an admissions office where students are processed.

It’s not by any means, however, a normal university. A few classes take place there in the evenings, making use of one or two rooms at any given time. Boek has failed several times to attain an educational license from the District, and now the city is suing to recover nearly $400,000 in property taxes, saying an unlicensed school shouldn’t be considered a nonprofit entitled to an exemption.

Boek, an anachronistic presence hobbling around the property pulling weeds in a full suit, is pretty sure it’s all just a vendetta waged by people who covet his land, which is now assessed at $10.7 million—nearly seven times what he bought it for in 1998—and right next to a Safeway. (That seemed to be news to the usual development suspects, several of whom say they aren’t angling for the property.) The neighborhood is almost wholly set against him, and Boek—who declines to give his age, but was old enough to get a masters degree in 1948—is stuck in a defensive crouch.

“There are people who wanted to have this property, tear down the buildings, and put up houses,” he says. “We aren’t interested in selling, but there have been people who would like to have it.”

* * *

International Graduate University in D.C.: What Is It, and Why Don't Neighbors Like It?

The way Boek tells it, the National Graduate University—it became the “International Graduate University” in 2009—started out in 1967 with some high ideals. Founded by a former deputy of President Harry Truman, it ran programs in management and human service while based in Arlington. Boek’s two books, published in the early 1990s by the university’s College of Democracy, are basic primers on the democratic system. He says stacks of them have been sent to Zambia recently to help set up a government there (though finding independent confirmation of this and some of Boek’s other claims isn’t easy).

When the Control Board made the city sell off dozens of school properties in the late ’90s, Boek came in as the highest bidder for the Buchanan School site, and put millions into new roofs, windows, and heating systems. How does he pay for it all? Boek has a deep-pocketed board—an executive vice president of the mining firm Alcoa Inc., for example—and the organization has built up a small nest egg. The school’s most recent tax filings claim very little in the way of donations or tuition revenue, but report a few hundred thousand dollars a year in investment income on several million dollars’ worth of stocks.

As a remnant of its roots in political science, IGU used to teach liberal arts classes, and in 2006 was certified to issue masters degrees. But the District revoked the provisional license a year later, saying Boek had failed to report on the school’s activities. Since then, the campus has hosted a hodgepodge of vocational programs, like a course in construction, and another for substance abuse counselors. Mayor Vince Gray’s administration took an interest in a janitorial program for homeless veterans (though Office of Veterans Affairs director Matt Cary says that so far only two out of the 13 people to be awarded certificates have found jobs). Three years ago, Boek invited the unfunded, all-volunteer H.O.P.E. Project, an information technology training program, to use classrooms at the school when a student got robbed while walking to its first location in Anacostia.

“We call it home,” says H.O.P.E. Project founder Ray Bell, who teaches young adults how to work computer help desks. “It’s definitely more than space, it’s a home away from home.”

The campus’ vast, empty buildings could be home to a lot more programs like Bell’s. The problem is, Boek is very selective about who he allows to use them. He won’t let groups rent space, which he fears might undermine his nonprofit status, and only allows a few veterans-oriented groups to host functions there for free. Boek requires programs to become part of the university, funneling all of their money through the school’s treasurer.

“Most of them have their egos involved, and they can’t come here unless they become a university program,” Boek says, showing me a thick folder of rejected letters and emails from local schools, churches, and nonprofits that wanted to use his buildings. “We aren’t renting space, and we are not allowing people to do things here that are not ours. Except the Chinese,” he notes, describing a group of officials who come once in a while to learn about the American system of government. (The Dalai Lama has visited as well.) Boek claims there’s a police office in the building, but both the Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol Police deny having one there.

Sometimes Boek isn’t entirely in control of what happens on his grounds. The American Legion, for example, waltzed in to set up a post without his permission; they say someone connected with the University told them it would be OK. “That’s a fluke,” Boek says. “On Tuesday I came up, for some reason, and saw all this furniture. They came in at night, and they were told they could.” So they stayed.

Despite the very small number of people who actually use his buildings, Boek derives tremendous satisfaction from those who do. On an evening when a H.O.P.E. Project class was in session, Boek tells me for the third time about a graduate who had recently landed a $46,000 job.

“Some of them are on welfare. But they won’t be, when they’re through,” he says, smiling in wonder at their progress. “My goodness, many of these people are deprived individuals, they are maladjusted to society, you know? And look at what happened to them! It’s so nice. It makes me just happy. I wish we could run more than one of those courses, but we have to have very qualified people to do it.”

* * *

Boek, whose massive office is lined with snapshots of himself and assorted notables, might be good at making friends in high places (or at least creating the appearance of a connection). But he started making enemies of nearby residents from the get-go.

“I knew from the minute I met Dr. Boek that he was a bad neighbor,” says WTOP reporter Mark Segraves, who used to live down the street. Another neighbor, Peter Theil, remembers Boek asking residents what they’d like to see happen at the school when he bought the building—and then ignoring what they suggested.

“He and his wife took a picture of our group, and put it up on the wall,” Theil says. “We never heard back from him on any of that stuff. Nobody heard back, as far as I know.”

A string of offenses followed. Boek declined a neighborhood request to turn on his outdoor lights at night in the still-dodgy neighborhood. According to Segraves, he tried to get John “Peterbug” Matthews, a beloved neighborhood fixture who runs a shoe repair academy, evicted by getting then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) to send a letter asking the Department of the Interior to take back a piece of land on the university’s block that the District controls and has leased to Matthews. When Boek proposed a charter school for at-risk youth, the neighborhood went to war—mistrusting the operator Boek brought in to run it—and the application was denied.

Boek also antagonized the local political establishment. When D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells was on the school board, Boek accused him of trying to exact a bribe in exchange for smoothing the way for the university’s license application. Wells says he was simply trying to convince Boek to host a charter school that had lost its building for one year, and reacts with unusual ire when Boek’s name comes up.

“He does nothing for the community,” Wells snaps. “He’s sitting on that building. The bushes are overgrown, the area’s dangerous. He’s a hostile occupier. He does not help with the families and the kids. He is not available, and that building is hardly used at all…the guy creeps me out.”

As of late, the neighbors have started playing hardball. Segraves, Theil, and a few others put together the documentation to call into question the university’s nonprofit status, and the Office of the Attorney General initiated legal proceedings for back taxes on the property in 2010—along with taxes on Boek’s house in Palisades, which the university has owned since 1972. The university calls the decision arbitrary and capricious, and the case is in mediation.

Through all of it, Boek’s high-powered board has been pretty hands-off. The chairman for the last two years, longtime District lawyer Clinton Chapman, says he first became aware of the university when Boek posthumously inducted Chapman’s wife into the Democracy Hall of Fame. Mostly, though, he lets Boek run the school’s affairs—including fundraising—even though there isn’t the money to pay Boek a salary. (The most recent tax filing lists $48,000 worth of compensation and benefits, but doesn’t say who’s paid what.) If the District wins its suit, someone will have to bail the school out.

“We’ll just have to pay it,” Chapman says. “Somebody will have to pay it, or lose it.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6928.

  • Will

    Ever since I moved to the Hill, I've wondered what this place could be doing. I actually called their admissions office to see if anyone worked there. They promised to send me some admissions materials, still waiting 6 months later.

    Given everything I've read, experienced and learned about IGU over the past year, I think it's a fairly complex tax shelter to insulate the assets of its leader. It's not terribly unique in that respect, since every other church in a residential home seems to be doing this too. The main difference is this guy is sitting on a couple of acres adjacent to a metro station. I doubt IGU survives the scrutiny of the AG.

  • anon

    I think IGU will disolve when Dr. Boek passes away. There's virtually no energy behind this place now, and there will be even less without him. Someone will realize it's in everyone's best interest for either him or his heirs to cash in their chips (ie sell to a developer) and walk away with a windfall.

    btw Dr. Boek's claims are by and large not credible. In the last round of publicity concerning IGU, he claimed to have a partnership with Community College of DC for an IGU public charter school, an initiative which was flatly denied by CC of DC.

  • KP

    I don't know what goes on throughout the day in the building, but I do attend classes at night there. I appreciate the fact Dr. Boek has opened up his location for me to learn about something I'm passionate about. Thank You Dr. Boek!

  • P Helms

    Regarding...

    Boek declined a neighborhood request to turn on his outdoor lights at night in "the still-dodgy neighborhood."

    Are you joking? In what possible sense is that section of Capitol Hill "dodgy?" I live two blocks from the IGU and walk past it frequently on my way to the nearby Safeway. It is safe family-friendly environment that is the farthest thing from "dodgy."

    As for what happens to the property, who knows? I hope a charter school comes in and picks it up. Thank goodness its out of the Historic District, at least for now.

  • George52905

    The complex would be a wonderful site for a campus of the \ DC Community College - it is accessible by public transportation (Potomac Metro and Pennsylvania Avenue SE are nearby), it has a nice campus feel. I hope the District will consider the possibility. Thanks for the article, City Paper.

  • seeseehpounder

    I was going to Safeway the other day and P Helms attempted to mug me. I said "what's that?" and then pointed up. P looked up and I ran in the other direction onto the IGU campus then hid in the overgrown bushes. P walked right by me with no idea. Thank the lord that no students were on campus pointing out my location to the marauding P. The neighborhood is indeed still dodgy but only when P is lurking around. I hope that Dr. Boek can keep the location going as long as P is using the surrounding residents as a personal piggy bank.

  • MJ

    This place is a total eyesore, and now that I know what it is (or at least what it claims to be) I have no qualms about saying that this place needs to go. Now. It's a blight on the community. Frankly, I would love to see it demolished along with the un-Safeway and a new mixed-use development built with a new Safeway, condos and other retail.

    And YES this neighborhood can still be dodgy. I live down the street and was mugged/assaulted there last year. Having been through that, I strongly believe that a well-lit, cleaned up block on E Street between 13th and 14th would make a world of difference.

  • Sharon Ambrose

    The District needs to enforce a number of laws in regard to this operation. The "school" has no educational charter, nor would it be qualified to receive one, and cannot grant any degrees. Under some circumstances (which have been explained to Dr. Boek), he might be able to receive a license as a proprietary institution. I don't know whether he qualifies under IRS rules as a non-profit. Since he is running a business (albeit an unlicensed one) I think he should be paying commercial property tax. I suspect that there are various city health and safety ordinances being violated. Dr. Boek, as Mark Seagraves correctly points out, has never been a good neighbor. I was always concerned that he was misrepresenting the programs he offers and was, in fact, being paid by various federal and city funding sources to provide services he has never been licensed to provide. Prior to obtaining the Buchanan School from the Control Board, Dr. Boek had run a proprietary school of some sort in Arlington. The Arlington authorities revoked his license and he sold the Virginia building shortly before he acquired Buchanan. Talking to Dr. Boek about these things poses a risk to one's grasp on reality.

  • MG

    Although I, too, would like to see the IGU property put to good use (a charter school is a great idea, or a mixture of retail and classrooms with the lawn space maintained), I strongly disagree with MJ's characterization of the neighborhood.

    While I am sorry you got mugged -- I was the victim of a mugging near Union Station three years ago, so I can sympathize -- that kind of crime can and does happen anywhere in this city. The developers who raze blocks of Capitol Hill for "new mixed-use development" tend, by and large, to create ugly, cheap-looking, and character-less blocks of buildings that are too tall for the area. If I wanted that, I would move to Arlington.

    IGU could be cleaned up and become a beautiful anchor to the neighborhood.

    PS -- Safeway was just remodeled a few years ago and has been a good store, although admittedly they've taken a hit since Harris Teeter opened.

  • Sandra Werness

    My father, Walter E. Boek, PhD, died this past November, at age 89, and was ill for quite some time. He struggled with prostate cancer for 21 years. It was at times a gruesome battle. My father had a dream and a vision and he worked terribly hard and was not able to attain it but he did manage to do a lot of good in the process.
    I think it is important to keep in mind that sometimes (usually) people are not able to reach their goals. Perhaps someday some of those who are writing in with very unkind words (and casting serious, unfounded aspersions), will find that they, too, have grown old and unwell. In his day, my father accomplished a great deal. In fact, he is considered a founder of the field of medical sociology. He worked in public health for many years, and devised and headed research studies that resulted in the saving of many many lives. He was a good, humble man who lived so frugally that he always used cardboard to make his shoes last longer. He loved people very much and valued everyone. Despite his very humble beginnings on a poor farm in upstate NY, he was able to get a good education and make something of himself. He did not enrich himself and in fact, always put this non-profit first before his own personal gain, and the happiness and well being of his family. Why be so unkind? Shame on you.

  • Sandra Werness

    Hello everyone I just want to let the neighborhood know that IGU will install motion sensor lights on the exterior of the building, as soon as possible. Please send me your concerns directly if you would like; my email is sbwerness@verizon.net I will do my best to address them in a timely fashion. I am now President and CEO of IGU and I wish the community the best. Sandra Boek Werness

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