UDC drops physics, history but keeps money-losing sports program. Really.

(Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON… UDC’s Nigel Munson (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

(Correction: The original version had an unfortunate misspelling in the headline, but it is fixed now.)

This isn’t a joke:  The University of District of Columbia, which was desperate to cut costs,  is eliminating 17 low-enrolled academic programs — including physics, history and economics — but is keeping for now an NCAA Division II athletics program that cost $3 million more last year than it generated in revenue.

That was the decision of the Board of Trustees, according to this report by my colleague Nick Anderson. The board took up a proposal to save money offered by UDC’s interim president, James E. Lyons Sr., as he tries to take the long-struggling school on a different path.

Lyons wanted to get rid of the sports program, which Anderson reported cost about $4.1 million in the past fiscal year, more than the $1.1 million it generated in revenue, and which includes only a few athletes from the District. His sensible idea was to spend the money on health and wellness programs that would benefit all UDC students, as well as intramural athletics.

The interim president was appointed by the board this past spring after it fired Allen L. Sessoms, who had overseen a major reorganization of UDC — including the creation of a two-year community college — but who also was criticized for a pattern of flying first class on UDC business.

Sessoms was one of a long line of UDC presidents who tried but failed to set the school on a sound financial footing and give it a solid academic direction. The school was created in 1977 as the only public institution of higher education in Washington D.C., through the merger of the Federal City College, D.C. Teachers College and Washington Technical Institute. By 2007, UDC had had nearly 15 presidents and interim presidents

To give you an idea of the ongoing problems, here’s how The Washington Post article about the hiring of Sessoms back in 2008, written by  Susan Kinzie and I, begins:

An Ivy League-educated physicist who has run a historically black state university for the past five years will be the next president of the University of the District of Columbia, a choice that school officials said signals dramatic change at the public institution.

UDC’s trustees announced yesterday that Allen Sessoms will become president Sept. 1. Sessoms, president of Delaware State University, will arrive as the long-troubled school is struggling to redefine itself.

Sessoms followed William Pollard, who was forced out as president in 2007 by trustees who were dissatisfied with the pace of change under his leadership, and an interim president ran the school for a while. Pollard became president in 2002 — after president Julius F. Nimmons Jr. resigned amid dissatisfaction with his administration — and oversaw a scandal-plagued administration. You get the idea.

Why does UDC still exist? Its supporters see it still as an important avenue of social and economic advancement for District residents. Critics have long said the the school either should be more narrowly focused or shut down.

Lyons’s plan to reshape the curriculum involves an effort to try to build better links between the school and Washington area employers and to eliminate academic programs that have few students. The trustees agreed to eliminate undergraduate majors in 17 subjects, including sociology, which has 31 students;  economics, which now has 23 students;  history, with 20 students; and physics, with four students, Anderson found from UDC data.

Closing down underenrolled programs and finding a real academic focus is important for the future of UDC. But can a four-year university consider itself a real institution of learning without a history or economics department?

The last enrollment profile published on the school’s Web site is from the 2007-08 school year, and it shows that the vast majority of UDC students at that time were over 22 years old, and that nearly 40 percent were over 30 years old. Given that the average age of UDC’s students has long been closer to 30 than 20, it isn’t likely it has changed all that much.  Does this student population really need an NCAA Division II sports program?

Some trustees said they think so. Anderson quoted trustee Jerome Shelton as saying:

It is critical to the life of a university that there be these types of opportunities. Please understand, this is almost a life-or-death question for me.

Hemorrhaging millions of dollars each year on unnecessary sports programs could wind up being a life-or-death question for UDC one day.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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