At UDC, distress over academic cuts

November 20, 2013

One by one, with a few exceptions, the trustees terminated a series of academic degree programs the other night at the only public university in the nation’s capital.

“Any discussion on economics?” asked Elaine Crider, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia. “If not, all in favor vote ‘aye.’” And so the board voted Tuesday night to discontinue the undergraduate major in economics.

In all, UDC is cutting 17 degree programs because of low enrollment, lack of resources and shifting priorities. It is part of a larger effort to cut costs and invest in programs that will boost enrollment at the university and make its curriculum more relevant to the region’s employers.

The phase-out list included an associate’s degree in graphic communication technology and two master’s degrees, in math statistics and special education. The other 14 were bachelor’s degrees: sociology, mass media, graphic design, physics, history, marketing, finance, procurement and public contracting, economics, management information systems, nutrition (food science), environmental science (general), environmental science (water resources) and environmental science (urban sustainability).

It was glum work. Trustees, meeting at the main campus on Connecticut Avenue NW, took pains to note at several points that the university would still offer classes in the targeted subjects. Some would be offered as a minor or as concentrations within other majors. And students who are currently majoring in the phase-out programs will be able to finish their degrees, officials said.

There were cheers from the audience when trustees voted to preserve a bachelor’s program in elementary education and delay action on a recommendation to end a bachelor’s in special education. There were a few split votes, including on the termination of the physics degree.

“Physics is a foundational type of program,” said trustee Joseph L. Askew Jr., pleading for clemency.

A UDC document indicated that on average, physics has drawn about six students per year who declared it as a major. The count this fall is four. UDC awarded one bachelor’s degree in physics from 2010 to 2012.

“It strikes me this is a program ripe for elimination,” said trustee George Vradenburg. Or, he noted, for investment. But money for improving struggling programs is in scarce supply, and so trustees were making what all called hard choices.

However, intercollegiate athletics programs, which UDC Interim President James E. Lyons Sr. had recommended for elimination, won a reprieve from the trustees.

Some students in the audience were relieved.

“They’re doing the best they can to preserve as many programs as they can and expand the university,” said Joshua Lopez, a D.C. native who is taking night classes at UDC for a master’s in homeland security. Lopez, 29, said he graduated with a bachelor’s in history from UDC in 2009.

How did it feel to see his undergraduate major get axed?

“It was a little disheartening,” he said. “I’m a huge history advocate.”

The university is still on a quest to find financial savings, following the vote to delay a proposal to cut the NCAA Division II athletics program. The sports program costs about $4 million a year and generates about a quarter of that in revenue.

Another question is the relationship of UDC’s branch community college to the university as a whole. The community college, launched in 2009, is now based in a leased office building at 801 North Capitol St., with classes also offered in other locations in the city. Periodically, there has been talk about moving the community college back to the main campus to save money. But that doesn’t seem to square with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s view that the community college should move toward independence.

Asked whether trustees would revisit the question of the community college’s location, Crider said after the meeting: “All options are available, as far as I’m concerned.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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