New mayor may nix enrollment caps

Newly inaugurated Mayor Vincent Gray said he is open to nixing city-imposed student and employee population caps at D.C. universities, a policy change which could have sweeping implications for the handful of universities across the city.

Officials from various D.C. universities argued that removing the caps would aid job growth at a job creation summit sponsored by Gray’s transition teams last month. GW’s population caps – set in both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campus plans – put limits on how many students can live and take classes on both campuses, as well as how many employees can work for the University.

Following the summit, Gray told the Washington Examiner that he was open to the idea of removing D.C. university student and employee population caps, but said he would need to look at the potential job growth that the abolishment of the caps could bring. He added that he would also need to take a look at the reasons for the caps – citing tensions between neighbors of universities in the past. Gray didn’t return a request for comment for this story.

University President Steven Knapp said last week he is open to discussing how the growth of local universities can help aid D.C.’s economy, but shied away from taking a definitive position on whether GW’s student and employee population caps should be removed. He declined to comment on whether or not he was for or against removing the limits placed on GW’s population by its city-approved campus plan.

Knapp said that universities bring “huge economic benefits” to D.C. through money spent by students and employees, through research funding that stays in the city, and in their role as employers.

“I welcome a discussion with city and community leaders on ways in which the growth of universities could be integrated with plans to revitalize the city’s economy and provide new opportunities for its citizens,” Knapp said in an e-mail.

Local leaders are saying they are against changes to the caps, and in the past, area residents have put up tough fights about GW’s expansion in both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon neighborhoods.

Knapp said he expects those who live and work around universities would be a “vital part” of discussions.

“I think the issue of caps should not be considered in isolation or with a focus on any single institution, but in the context of a broader discussion of the District’s economic future,” Knapp said.

Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission chair Rebecca Coder said in regards to the possibility of removing the caps, the neighborhood around GW “would be opposed to such a change to the campus planning process.”

Coder said D.C.’s zoning regulations keep these caps for valid reasons, including ensuring that growth is appropriate and “most importantly that residential areas don’t solely become dormitories.”

“A mix of residents and employment options is far more healthy for the neighborhood and the city,” she said.

Foggy Bottom Association President Asher Corson said examining removal of either population or physical growth caps is a bad idea. Corson said schools like American and Georgetown universities, currently debating their campus plans with surrounding communities, have learned from the success of GW’s last campus plan, approved in 2007.

“What happened is GW set the groundwork for very aggressive growth models,” Corson said. He also noted that the “most vocal, strongest proponent of unbridled University growth,” President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, was part of Gray’s transition team.

While Corson said he expects removal of the caps won’t move forward due to resistance by residents citywide, Corson said he would bring up the issue if the mayor attends the Jan. 19 ANC 2A meeting.

Since Gray’s jobs summit, Knapp said he hasn’t been aware of further discussions about the removal of population caps, and GW hasn’t engaged in any lobbying on the issue.

“What we are doing is planning to host a summit at which civic and business leaders could come together with university experts to discuss ways of creating more job opportunities for District residents,” Knapp said.

GW’s staff and faculty population is well within the limits set by the plan. The employee headcount on the Foggy Bottom campus can’t exceed 12,529, but in the fall, that count was just 6,815, according to the 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan compliance report for fall 2010.

Coder said GW’s current campus plan allows for an increase in staff on the campus, adding that there was “lots of room for growth and a significant contribution to jobs in D.C.”

Despite the apparent room for employees, more jobs are going to GW’s Virginia campus.

“The University is expanding its programs in Virginia both because of space limitations and to take advantage of unique educational opportunities, such as our partnership with Shenandoah University in the field of pharmacogenomics,” Knapp said.

He added that administrative functions have been moving there from Foggy Bottom in order to free up space for academic programs and student activities.

“We are not planning any expansion of our two campuses in the District beyond the boundaries already approved in our campus plans,” Knapp said.

Still, GW’s student population has been growing closer to its limit.

The total student headcount on the Foggy Bottom campus is limited to 20,000. This fall that count was 18,307 and the full-time equivalent student count was 16,372, a figure that cannot exceed 16,553.

Knapp wouldn’t say whether he felt population caps would need to be adjusted to foster growth, however.

“We are making sure our enrollments at Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon remain within the caps. Once again, I think any discussion about the future of the caps for GW and for all other D.C. universities should take place in the context of a broader plan for the economic well-being of the District.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.