Dr. Richard Lee James, 54, vice president for academic affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, drowned Friday in the swimming pool of a Washington neighbor. He was pronounced dead at Walter Reed Army hospital.

Dr. James had joined UDC in September 1978 as dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology. He was named vice president of the University in July 1980.

Prior to joining UDC, he has been a member of the faculty and staff at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He joined the faculty there as an education professor in 1973, then spent three years as dean of Morgan State's school of education before joining UDC.

Between 1958 and 1967, he was a music teacher in the Prince George's public schools. He was on the faculty of Fairmont Heights High School from 1958 to 1961, then taught at Mary Bethune Junior High for four years before joining Charles Carroll Junior High in 1966.

Dr. James was a native of Asheville, N.C. He earned a bachelor's degree at the Hampton Institute and a master's degree in music education at the University of Michigan. He earned his doctoral degree in education at the University of Maryland.

He taught in public schools in North Carolina, and was an instructor in the music department at Kentucky State College in Frankfort from 1951 to 1958. He was associate director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington from 1968 to 1973.

Dr. James was chairman-elect of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, a member of the Mayor's Advisory Council on Education, and was active in the National Advisory Committee on Multicultural Standards for Teacher Education. He also was a member of the American Association for Higher Education.

Dr. James was a member of the Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church in Washington.

Survivors include his wife, Velma K., a son, Paul R., his mother, Ruth, and a brother, Edward, all of Washington.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Richard L. James Scholarship Fund at the University of the District of Columbia.