Contemplating a new future, many at UDC feel left behind


Mike Riley, head coach of the University of the District of Columbia men's basketball team, bottom center, watches his team during a home game against Franklin Pierce University. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
November 17, 2013

Like many other students at the University of the District of Columbia, Bobbie Lancaster learned last week that her academic program is slated for elimination as part of a cost-cutting proposal for the school.

Lancaster, who is studying graphic design at the 5,490-student public college in Northwest Washington, grew up on Georgia Avenue and is the only one of three children in her family to attend college. She chose the school after seeing the tuition costs at the city’s private schools — one would have cost her more than $20,000 a semester, while UDC, because she is a city resident, is more like $3,600.

“I don’t think people understand how vital this school is,” Lancaster, 22, said. “It’s affordable education.”

Officials at UDC said last week that they are considering a plan that would cut all of the school’s athletic teams and eliminate nearly two dozen baccalaureate and graduate academic programs to save millions of dollars a year. The school’s interim president said he hopes to reinvest that money into other academic programs, tuition assistance and online education to transform the school into something that better prepares its students for the Washington region’s job market.

The news hit the Van Ness campus with a bit of a thud. Students and faculty anxiously discussed the potential cuts.
T-shirts and sweatpants with the school’s Firebirds sports logo hung in the student bookstore as the prospect of the UDC’s teams’ disappearance sunk in.

The Faculty Senate sent a letter to the administration questioning the plan, saying the proposal lacked “the rationale, data, and analysis to support its recommendations.” In some classrooms, teachers talked candidly with students about what the proposal, part of the school’s Vision2020 plan, would mean.

“How did they even choose graphic design?” Lancaster asked her friends over a plastic container of fries in the cafeteria, in Building 38 just off Connecticut Avenue. A friend suggested it might be because of low enrollment, as has been reported in the news. But that doesn’t make sense to Lancaster, who couldn’t even get into her major for a year because it was full.

Some point out signs of investment, such as the $40 million student center under construction just outside the cafeteria. But they said they can’t understand how the university wound up in such an apparently dire situation.

Derrick Barnes, a 40-year-old who grew up in the District and is working toward a master’s in business management, blames poor management, the city’s lackluster investment and a weak alumni network. To Barnes, the proposal seems like the end of a mission to serve District residents.

“As gentrification has occurred in D.C.,” Barnes said, “what we’re saying to [less well-off people] who are left here is we don’t care.”

The university’s interim president, James E. Lyons Sr., has said the proposals are an effort to bolster the school by adding students, staying affordable and preparing graduates for jobs in high-demand fields. Lyons hopes to use the millions of dollars in annual savings from sports and academic cuts to expand and enhance the remaining programs.

The university has withered from what it was in the 1970s, when the D.C. Teachers College, the Washington Technical Institute and Federal City College were combined into one institution that had 13,000 students. In 2009, the school created a separate UDC community college, in part to help improve its dismal four-year graduation rates.

Thomas Kakovitch, who has been a professor of environmental science at the school for 42 years, said the proposed cuts worry him — and bemoaned the fact that his program is one of those being considered for elimination.

“I’ve been at this school longer than any president or provost,” Kakovitch said. “Whatever they tell me, it is not satisfactory.”

He said enrollment in his classes is high and the work he and his students do is vital to the District and to the university’s mission as a public land grant institution. This fall, he helped a Southeast church, ReGeneration House of Praise, set up an aquaponics facility he had designed to farm fish and grow fresh food in an urban setting. University officials praised the project at the time.

“They publicized it knowing all along that they were going to shut it down,” Kakovitch said.

His office sits across from offices for the biology department, which is one of the programs the proposal suggested bolstering with more funding. The juxtaposition has made for an awkward week. “They don’t want to talk to me,” Kakovitch said.

Retired English professor Anne Hughes was on campus Wednesday to meet with a physics professor who is a former colleague. Hughes said she was “appalled” by the proposed cuts.

Her colleague, who requested anonymity because his program is slated for elimination, said he attended the university’s three-day retreat at the Washington Convention Center during the summer, where the talk focused on mission statements. “There was no mention of academic programs” being cut, he said.

In 2006, the pair created an eight-week summer crash course to get students up to speed before they started college. UDC educates more D.C. residents than any other school in the area, and Hughes said many of those students come to the university ill-equipped for college. But more than 75 percent of the students in their summer course are able to test out of remedial math classes.

Hughes, who taught everything from reading to statistics as a full-time professor, comes back every summer to teach the math courses so students will be prepared for the transition to college. Too often, she said, the school — which gets almost 40 percent of its $169 million operating budget from the city — becomes a “political football,” hurting its ability to educate D.C.’s public school graduates. No other university in the city, she said, takes on that challenge like UDC does.

“To me,” Hughes said, “it’s a tragedy for this university not to succeed.”

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