Opinion: Whither and Whether UDC?

An advisory board to the D.C. Council and mayor on the University of the District of Columbia minces no words.

“A plan is urgently needed to bring … costs in line.”

“Operating deficits, a high cost structure … and declines in student population … have produced a challenging financial situation.”

In other words, neither the university nor the newer community college is working properly, and the whole thing has to be rethought, restructured and revived.

The board delivered its 33-page report to Mayor Vincent Gray last week. It calls for strong steps to make the community college independent of the university so that it can gain strong accreditation and create programs targeted for jobs and college. “Independence is critical … ,” the report says.

Tellingly, neither school President Allan Sessoms nor members of the University of the District of Columbia board were there.

In fact, Sessoms’s name wasn’t mentioned during a 40-minute presentation of the report. Mayor Gray grudgingly said his name only after News4 asked why it had been omitted in his praise of the school leadership’s cooperation.

Sources close to the restructuring effort are suggesting privately to us that Sessoms’s contract may not be renewed when it comes up next spring. Sessoms did not respond to our request for comment when the report was released, except to say that he and the board were working hard to improve the university. Another school official said Sessoms has been hampered by union agreements, seniority and other workforce issues.

The university board, headed by Elaine Crider, is due to submit its own restructuring report Monday. It will be the first public indication of whether the board is prepared to play a leading role in any restructuring or whether there will infighting over Sessoms, the school’s direction or anything else.

“We are confident that the UDC board understands the significant task ahead,” said the advisory panel statement. In fact, insiders say, one of the problems with rebuilding the university system is that Sessoms and the board jumped ahead with creation of a community college system even while nonprofit, business and other groups were studying the idea of creating an independent school.

The advisory panel that’s now trying to reshape higher education in the city is headed by Walter Smith of DC Appleseed, a nonprofit research group that has tackled HIV/AIDS and other city issues. Members of the panel include Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution, educator and activist Carrie Thornhill, former Federal City Council executive director John Hill and educator Joshua Kern.

The university gets about $65 million a year from the District to operate the school, which has only about 5,000 students. It asked for another $23 million for the community college.

Under a section of the report called “The Need for Fiscal Stability,” the advisory panel said the cost per full-time student at the university is about $34,000 -- about 60 percent higher than the median at similar schools. The university has disputed this figure, but even the lower figure it supports indicates costs about 25 percent higher.

Whither the university and the city’s nascent community college? The battle may be just beginning. Read the full report at dcappleseed.org.

• Airport answers? Mayor Gray has appointed Barbara Lang to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Lang is head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She joins other new members who hope to straighten out what can only be described as a mess at the authority that runs Dulles International and Reagan National.

“Her business acumen and personal skills will serve her and the people of D.C. well on this important board,” the mayor said.

The Notebook will add this: She’ll need every skill she’s got.

• Security bureaucracy. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given its latest grant -- totaling $51.8 million -- to Maryland, Virginia and the District to improve various projects for the official “national capital region” that encompasses the three jurisdictions.

It includes improvements to chemical and biological sensor devices, as well as training for first responders to operate such equipment. That’s pretty clear.

But the following section sets off the Notebook’s bureaucratic sensor for securicrat speak:

“Transportation Management Tools: The region will sustain and expand its traffic and weather information sharing system. It will be expanded to offer traffic forecasting based on historical traffic, weather and incident data. This system gives emergency managers and other preparedness and response partners a common, regional operating picture, and it assists them to make decisions on needed regional, coordinated actions such as evacuations or sheltering in place.”

If that lengthy paragraph means the region will work better together to forestall those horrible traffic jams that occur with every emergency, natural or otherwise, then the money will be well spent.

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