UDC interim president says he is not in the running for a long-term appointment

November 12, 2013

The interim president of the University of the District of Columbia, who has proposed scrapping the school’s NCAA Division II athletic program, is crystal clear on the obvious follow-up question.

James E. Lyons Sr. says he has no desire to serve as president of the school beyond his interim term.

“I’m 70,” he said in an interview in his office on Connecticut Avenue NW. “I’ve been president of three universities already. I’ve got six grandchildren.”

Lyons was hired in March to help get UDC out of a jam. In December, the Board of Trustees fired President Allen L. Sessoms, exercising its power to terminate his contract without cause. At the same time, the public university was continuing to respond to a mandate from the D.C. government to “right-size” its operations — a euphemism for cutting.

Under his contract, Lyons will serve for a year, with options to extend his term for a few months. That means he is likely to serve through this academic year.

Lyons is shepherding a vigorous discussion about how to cut and grow at the same time. The university had 5,490 students in its fall head count and hopes to raise that by 20 percent by 2020. That would be difficult at any school.

So far, it appears that the board has not launched a presidential search. The board may be calculating that it’s better for an interim president to take the flak for making tough decisions and then embark on a search for a long-term successor who can take the reins without being bruised at the outset.(Forget about “permanent” appointments — there are no such things, especially in this sector of higher education.)

“I want to try to do what I can to help, move the agenda forward,” Lyons said. Then the next president “can come in and have an opportunity to hit the ground running.”

From his suite in UDC’s Building 39, Lyons can gaze down at a significant construction project that fronts Connecticut Avenue — a new student services center. The $40 million project broke ground in January 2012. Some people have wondered about what appears to be a slow pace of work. Lyons said the project is supposed to be done in 2015. “I look out there every day, and it’s moving along,” he said.

Before coming to UDC, Lyons had a long career in higher education: president of Bowie State University from 1983 to 1992; president of Jackson State University in Mississippi from 1992 to 1999; president of California State University at Dominguez Hills from 1999 to 2007; and secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission from 2007 through 2010.

Lyons wants to be clear: He is a fan of intercollegiate athletics. He was a track and field athlete himself at the University of Connecticut. At Cal State at Dominguez Hills, Lyons served on a national presidents’ council of the NCAA’s Division II. He still wears a ring to mark a national championship that school’s men’s soccer team won in 2000. Lyons also talks about the importance of the legacy of professional football legend Walter Payton for recruiting at Jackson State, the alma mater of the late running back.

Disbanding UDC’s small Division II athletics program (114 student athletes) would save the university $4.4 million a year, money that Lyons believes could be better spent in other ways. Asked whether NCAA sports programs are a brand-builder for colleges, Lyons said: “They can be. But you know, there are schools going broke thinking that they can be.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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