The acting president of the University of the District of Columbia has proposed laying off 55 faculty members -- about 10 percent -- in a move to cut programs with falling enrollments before the university's new permanent president takes office.

In a report to the university trustees, Acting President Claude A. Ford said the cutbacks are needed to even out teaching loads and to provide funds to overcome "serious deficiencies" in UDC's libraries, supplies, and research and remedial programs.

The board is expected to vote on the plan Tuesday, just three days before Rafael Cortada arrives on campus as a full-time consultant. Cortada is scheduled to take over as president Oct. 1.

Prodded by a report from the D.C. Council, committees of faculty members and administrators have been discussing possible cuts for more than a year. Both board members and Cortada have indicated that any layoffs should take place before the new president arrives so he can avoid becoming a "hatchet-man" as soon as he takes office.

"The very survival of the university as a viable institution {is} severely threatened by its continuing inability to meet critical needs," Ford declared in a 35-page report on the proposed reduction-in-force. Without the money saved by the layoffs, which would amount to about $2 million next year, "the academic integrity of the university will be placed in serious jeopardy," Ford declared.

The proposal, submitted to the board late last month, is similar to a plan presented in February by acting provost Samuel Sullivan. Although the Faculty Association, a union affiliated with the National Education Association, has strongly objected to layoffs, union President Samuel F. Carcione said the union has been negotiating with UDC administrators about "alternatives to RIFs," such as retraining or incentives for early retirement.

In a supplemental budget recently approved by the D.C. Council, UDC will receive $2 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 for severance pay for laid-off faculty, and $500,000 to expand its early retirement program.

Under the layoffs proposed by Ford, the largest cuts would be in education and liberal arts programs, where enrollments have dropped the most. UDC's overall enrollment has slid by almost 25 percent in seven years.

The education college would lose 18 of its 75 faculty positions. Liberal arts would lose 29 of 197 positions, including eight of 13 in history, six of 17 in music, and four of 11 in sociology and anthropology. Two small liberal arts programs would be eliminated: German, with three faculty members, and Chinese, with one.

"Certainly, it's a painful decision" to make cuts, said N. Joyce Payne, the chairman of the university trustees. "But we must be able to concentrate our resources on where the student needs are. What we're trying to do now is what should have been done when the three institutions were merged."

The university was formed in 1977 by a merger of the city's three public colleges, D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College, and Washington Technical Institute. Despite duplicate programs and higher per-pupil costs than any state college system except Alaska, UDC has had no major faculty layoffs since then. In 1981, 29 faculty positions were eliminated through a voluntary "buyout."

Last year the university laid off 63 of its 735 nonfaculty employes -- mostly in lower-level positions -- for an annual savings of $1.8 million.

Although Payne predicted that the board would approve the faculty layoffs, Trustee Joseph Webb said he was concerned that the RIFs might jeopardize the university's mission of providing "extensive remedial assistance" to students who enter under its open admissions policy.