The Duck of Minerva

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The DC Government’s Priorities

January 7, 2012

Last year I mentioned an editorial in the Washington Post decrying the District’s decision–prodded by a small number of wealthy Georgetown residents–to force the University to meet unrealistic targets. A refresher:

A recommendation by the city’s office of planning would require the university to provide housing for 100 percent of its undergraduate students by 2016; failure to do so would force cuts in enrollment starting in 2015. Georgetown houses a higher percentage (84 percent) of undergraduates on its campus than most of the other universities in the city. Not only is it unfair to hold Georgetown to this new standard, but it’s unrealistic to expect the school to raise the money or find appropriate sites. The city’s suggestion that the university consider an off-campus site outside the university’s Zip code (Arlington?) is laughable. 

What’s most troubling about the city’s posture is the notion that an increase in young people, particularly those in search of an education, is somehow undesirable. What happened to the idea that these are the very kind of people that should be lured to make the District their home? Here’s how Sally Kram of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area put it in testimony supporting Georgetown: “Given that students are one of the District’s most assured conduits for new residents — a lifeline for any urban community — it seems particularly odd that the District’s Office of Planning seems committed to restricting student growth, particularly graduate and continuing education students.” 

There is no question that the neighborhoods surrounding Georgetown have some legitimate complaints. There have been issues of noise and litter and other problems by students living off-campus. But the solution isn’t to banish students or punish the university. Georgetown has increased police, provided additional garbage pickup and disciplined chronic troublemakers. Besides, for all the complaints, the neighborhoods — which, it must be pointed out, came long after the university — still are desirable places with steady demographics and increased home prices.

The editorial, predictably, caused one influential neighbor to accuse Georgetown of underhandedly influencing the Washington Post. Lydia DePillis of the City Paper, though, gets it right:

Can’t disagree with the ed board here. Requiring a university to house all of its students on campus is unrealistic and unreasonable, not to mention counterproductive to the goal of getting them involved in District affairs, which Mayor Vince Gray has explicitly pushed. At the same time, Gray says he “supports the community” against the “creeping presence” of universities into neighborhoods. But does the administration really want those jobs to be housed at satellite campuses in Arlington? If so, it’s done a pretty good job so far.

Well, not content with going after undergraduate enrollment, the community has been gunning for graduate students as well.

This might be simply in retaliation for their failure to recognize that moving into a neighborhood that has housed a university for over three hundred years might entail dealing with drunken students and traffic. It might stem from the belief that the only drunk young people in Georgetown must be students at the college. It might also stem from their refusal to believe studies that show adding graduate students won’t, with proper mitigation, seriously impact commuting in and around Georgetown.

But, whatever the reason, they are seeking a cap-and-reduce policy towards post-graduate students that treats full-time and part-time graduate students as equivalent. The zoning board appears to be siding with them, and Georgetown is taking voluntary action.

If you watch the zoning board hearing  from November of 201, you’ll soon realize what a joke this is. The community representatives have trouble distinguishing between “trips” and “students,” accuse the studies of being improper because they didn’t consider the possibility that some students and/or faculty might park in a neighborhood about about a mile away, and so forth.

The net result? People will lose their jobs. Less funding will be available for the graduate school–and hence for fellowships for PhD and MA students. There will be enormous pressure for MA programs to cease to admit part-time students, thus preventing Georgetown from serving the career needs of DC and US government employees.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.