The freshman class at the University of the District of Columbia start school at a unique time in UDC's history. As the Washington Post reported last week, UDC is opening its first-ever student housing complex. And as Washington Monthly reported this month in its annual college guide, UDC is a so-called "dropout factory." The District college's graduation rate ranks among the worst of any 4-year public college in the nation.
That could change -- depending on the outcome of the mayoral election.
For years, incumbent D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chair and mayoral challenger Vincent Gray have sparred over the fate of UDC. The battle over appointments to the school's 15-member board has grown so bitter that the board no longer has enough members to reach quorum. And Mayor Fenty has blocked legislation that would allow the trustees to operate without quorum.
Some of the conflict between Fenty and Gray over UDC tracks across other government agencies. The Council rejected Fenty's nomination of George Tyrone Simpson to the UDC board in 2008 without a vote. The Council also rejected his nomination to the Public Employee Relations Board -- and to the Housing Finance Agency board as well. Fenty eventually found a place for Simpson on the National Capital Planning Commission, which is not subject to Council approval.
(Simpson replaced Stacie Turner, who left to become a Real Housewife of DC.)
The Council rejected Sean Gough, another Fenty appointee, without giving him a vote, either. In a response that illustrates the acrimonious state of the standoff, Fenty simply renominated Gough to the board. Another nominee, David Gragan, has been held up as well.
The Council won't approve Fenty's picks. And Fenty won't nominate Council-friendly candidates.
The standoff turned into a crisis in November 2009, when the terms of four board members expired -- with no one in the wings to take their places.
The conflict is not merely an extension of the Fenty/Gray race. Mayor Fenty has never once met with UDC President Allen Sessoms, whose selection in 2008 he tried to delay without success. Sessoms has met with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee just once since his appointment.
In a sense, Rhee might be the best thing to happen to UDC since the end of the scandal-plagued administration of former President William Pollard. UDC vice president of university relations and public affairs Alan Etter says that the problem with UDC is DCPS.
"One reason for the low graduation rate in the past is that so many students come from the D.C. public school system," said Etter. "They couldn't read, they couldn't write, and they couldn't do arithmetic."
Etter said that Rhee's impact has yet to be felt, at least in the form of better prepared incoming UDC freshmen. But he gives credit to the new UDC Community College, which got a big boost from Council Chair Gray earlier this year. In the same budget shenanigans that saw Gray nix the streetcar program at the eleventh hour (unsuccessfully), Gray took Ward 8's Patricia R. Harris Education Center off the city's hands and delivered the school to UDC to become the UDC Community College campus.
"The students whom I have been exposed to who are [at the UDC Community College] now are serious about their college careers," said Etter. "These are the kind of students in the past wouldn't necessarily think of UDC as their first choice."
The UDC Community College remediation programs and student housing -- accommodations that serve 90 students now and will serve 300 students by 2012 -- may serve to attract more typical students than those who usually apply to the "utility college." The college serves a diverse student body, as do many public universities. With a graduate rate of 11% (according to recent data), UDC does not serve many of them well.
Arguably, the way the college serves a changing student body will be decided on September 14, when voters determine who will be mayor -- who will appoint 10 of 15 UDC trustees, if he manages to appoint a full board.
That decision can't come too soon for UDC.
"We're never going to be the University of Maryland. We're never going to be the University of Virginia," Etter said. "But we have a mission to uphold and students to serve."