Housing Complex

Can UDC Make the Jump?

Along with hospitals, affordable housing, and libraries, add one more District priority that didn't get what its advocates wanted in the mayor's budget for 2013: The University of the District of Columbia. Local funding has bounced around $63 million since 1997, and President Allen Sessoms had asked for it to be bumped up to $85.1 million this year. No dice: The allocation remained essentially the same.

That's problematic for a couple reasons. One: For the last three years, UDC has supported a brand new community college with no corresponding increase in funds, even though it costs about $12 million per year to run. That college hopes to become an independent branch campus by the end of this year, according to CEO Jonathan Guevarra. And two: Since coming into office in 2009, Sessoms has been attempting to turn UDC into a state university on par with comparable institutions around the country—the kind of quality school that would make it unnecessary for the feds to pay to send D.C.'s kids to college somewhere else

That second piece is the hardest one. Even as it undertakes an ambitious building program to change its brutalist face and bring students to live on campus, it faces questions from the surrounding community about why it even wants to rise above its commuter school reputation. Breathless stories about Sessoms' travel bills and home renovations don't help the perception issue. Even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, a staunch UDC supporter, said at the university's budget oversight hearing this month that last year's poor recordkeeping—the institution is trying to computerize statistics that have long been kept in stacks of paper—tried his patience.

"I was embarrassed when he told them about the university's mixed-up numbers," Barry told Sessoms from the dais. "We're trying to defend the university budget, trying to negotiate some more money, but you really made it hard."

It's unclear that money will even solve the problem, though. In 2009, an analysis commissioned by the Brookings Institution and D.C. Appleseed found that UDC had a phenomenally high cost structure: $30,600 per student just in educational expenses, compared to $17,100 for peer institutions. A lot of that is tied up in labor costs mandated by statute for faculty who've been around for decades; the university is currently trying to renegotiate its contract with the teacher's union, and their latest offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the university has had to raise tuition, which could make college unaffordable for some students even as it raises more money.

At the same time, UDC finally has a full, high-powered board of trustees, which had been left at half-capacity under the last administration. Maybe a shiny new student center will be a catalyst to start turning things around.

And maybe the institutional weight of decades of mismanagement and disrespect will be too heavy to shake off.

There's a lot more to say here, and I'm researching a cover story to do that over the next few weeks. If you're a student, alumnus, faculty member, or anybody else who knows something, please get in touch: ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • JM

    The choice to use unionized labor for instruction is purely a self-inflicted wound. I don't believe most Universities have "professors' unions". That seems like the first thing to fix.

  • Tom M.

    Uhmmm. UDC doesn't even report information about the academic background or standardized test scores for admitted students. The latest graduation rates that i could locate (out of date in following a cohort of students from admission in 2004) shows less than 10% graduation rate. High cost, poor service, substandard - that describes the District (not just UDC) so accurately...

  • Skipper

    Solution for UDC: Fire most of its staff, administrators, and "professors" and start all over.

  • http://www.udc.edu Alan Etter

    UDC's graduation rate is terrible (about 12%, actually). But graduation rates, per se, don't really express the full measure of the quality of an institution. For generations, UDC has had - as its main student body - many students who have needed serious remediation before even considering serious college work. It's something urban colleges have dealt with forever. What the university has done - with the creation of the community college - is move those remediation services there, where there is open admissions and - by creating admissions standards in the four year university, it is hopefully attracting students serious about getting a degree. That hasn't always been the goal of students attending UDC. And how the graduation rate is tabulated is patently biased against urban universities in the first place. The measurement only takes first time, full-time freshmen and observes their progress over six years. If they attend full time and graduate from the same school at which they started within six years - that's a point toward the school's graduation rate. Nobody else counts. In other words, you attend a school and then transfer to finish your degree...you don't count. You go for a year - then take a year off to work and then come back...you don't count. You're an adult coming back to finish your degree...you don't count. UDC gets a huge amount of transfer students - and many if not most of them graduate, but the university cannot count them in the traditional graduation rate...because they don't fit into the formula. So - the university is compiling transfer and other student information that should be reported as supplemental. And - yes - the labor issue that the university has to deal with is huge...and has for years constrained its ability to remove low or non-performing elements and replace them with high performing staff. UDC has some tremendous faculty...being able to attract more is an important priority.

  • Ward1Dude

    I think the school needs to be completely recreated. it's performance is shockingly bad even when compared to other schools w similar demographics. UDC can't even answer a phone or use email apparently...last year, I called and emailed several times about possible classes for my niece and no one ever replied to me and when I visited to speak with someone the person in admissions was so rude to me I left. My niece is now going to PG Community College. While I hear good things about the UDC community college, my niece will not go there as long as it's affiliated with UDC.

  • http://www.udc.edu Alan Etter

    The university is aware of the ongoing problems that have, frankly, contributed to its low reputation. It takes time to change a culture. But make no mistake - those changes are under way. The admissions problem is being addressed directly with new, dedicated personnel. It's not going to change completely over night - but it is going to change.

  • tom m

    Alan Etter - vice.prsidwnt of UDC? paid flak and spinner? Earning your keep!

  • http://www.udc.edu Alan Etter

    There's no spin to it. The place has not historically performed at the level District citizens deserve. We have to be open and honest about that. But we also have to be aggressive in making people aware of the challenges facing the university - and accomplishments made despite those challenges. And we have to make it perform and be seen as performing as a legitimate university instead of an agency of the District government, which is how it is treated and, frankly, how it has carried itself.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    As they say in the street...

    UDC = University of Dumb Children

  • tom m

    So in an era of tight budgets first class travel for the president as well as custom built book shelves were priorities? Alan? Is this mic on?

  • Patrick

    So - the only reason that whole business got anyone's attention was Fox News' breathless reports about how the world was ending over the president's travel. No one has ever really set the record straight about a sweeps story that was hyped way out of proportion, as media often do. In the final analysis, we're talking about $8,000 worth of upgrades for trips the president was required to take. They were not 'luxury vacations' as Fox clearly convinced you they were. Nobody disputes that the president of a university must travel to conduct business, as the president did in every one of these cases. Further, he suffers from a condition that leaves him susceptible to blood clots forming in his legs. His doctor has advised that when traveling in a confined space longer than two hours, he must elevate his legs to prevent clots from developing. That is an ADA issue that this - and every business - must make for reasonable accommodation. Now - Dr. Sessoms did not help his case by refusing to address this early on. That was a mistake. As for the 'custom built' book shelves - they're part of a wall that had rotted because water leaked in through the roof during the three years the residence sat unoccupied and unmaintained. The book shelves are built into the wall. If the wall is rebuilt, the book shelves have to be rebuilt. If that makes them 'custom built', then I guess they're 'custom built'...but the engineers were more worried about the wall collapsing and the roof falling in than they were about the shelves. The president, by the way, is required to live in the university-owned property, which serves not only as his residence - but also a venue for events he is required to hold on behalf of the university. He doesn't own the home; he doesn't own the book shelves. He doesn't own anything on the property except the personal items he, his wife and children brought with them.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW, DC probably has too many private universities and is too small to be able to support a first rank public university.

    Years ago, I suggested a counterfactual where the city did something like how the SUNY system pays for certain "state" colleges at otherwise private universities (certain colleges at Cornell, the Environmental Science and Forestry School affiliated with but technically separate from Syracuse) or how the USG funds the Technical School for the Deaf at RIT.

    In other words, just pay for slots at a designated liberal arts college of one of the universities--it would probably have to be GWU or Howard--because GU and CUA are religious institutions.

    The same could be done for engineering, although that's a problem because GWU doesn't really have an engineering college, but GU and CUA do.

    Similarly, for years I suggested that rather than having a separate community college system, that DC should try to go in with Montgomery College (or PGCC) on a combined system, because again, DC is pretty small to be able to get decent economies of scale for such an institution and it's a waste of money to pay for a duplicative central administration.

  • margaret

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with Skipper. There's too much baggage on all levels at UDC and no real leadership, including an inept administration and a faculty union that doesn't care about economic realities. There is a need for affordable, public higher education in DC, but UDC, if it persists in its current state, will never be able to fulfill that role.

  • Dizzy

    Richard: Other way around - GW has the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, while Georgetown does not have engineering.

  • spookiness

    Howard has engineering department.