The board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted yesterday to begin laying off 55 faculty members, a 10 percent reduction in force that will cut programs with falling enrollments before the university's new president takes office this fall.

At a standing-room-only session, the board voted 5 to 4, with two abstensions, to approve the faculty layoffs, which were proposed to the trustees last month by Acting President Claude A. Ford.

Ford said the cuts, which would save $2 million next year, are needed to even teaching loads and to redirect funds to overcome "serious deficiencies" in UDC's libraries, supplies, research and remedial programs.

UDC's new semester starts Aug. 17, and letters to the affected faculty members are expected to go out this week.

"This is a very painful day," said board member Peter B. Edelman, who supported the layoff resolution. "But we are at a point in the history of this university where I think the action before us is unavoidable."

Board member Joseph Webb said he opposed the layoffs because the decisions on whom to keep and whom to let go were being made according to seniority.

"We still have faculty members who were here when I was a student," Webb said. "They were incompetent then, and they are incompetent now."

Webb called the faculty and the union that represents it "a self-perpetuating thing" and questioned whether the method for layoffs would improve the quality of education at the 12,000-student UDC.

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 declined by almost 25 percent in seven years.

A supplemental budget recently approved by the D.C. Council and now pending in Congress includes $2 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 for severance pay for laid-off faculty. In addition, the supplemental budget earmarks an additional $500,000 to expand UDC's early retirement program for the administrative staff.

Although the Faculty Association, a union affiliated with the National Education Association, has strongly objected to the layoffs, it had been negotiating with UDC administrators about alternatives to staff layoffs, including retraining or early retirement incentives. Yesterday, the union's president, Samuel F. Carcione, walked out of the meeting after N. Joyce Payne, who heads the board, refused to allow him more than two minutes to address the trustees after the vote.

Payne denied Carcione's previous request to speak to the board before the layoff vote.

Carcione said last night in a telephone interview that the association's position, detailed in a 13-page document presented to the board, "is and has consistently been that the board cannot put a RIF {reduction-in-force} into effect under the terms of our contract" because the condition of "financial exigency" has not been met and "program eliminations and curtailments" have not been justified under the board's study of the situation.

"With the new president coming in, we would prefer not to get into an acrimonious situation," Carcione said. "However, if that's what it comes to, that's what it comes to . . . . We feel that we will be sustained if we are forced to go to arbitration on the issue."

Earlier, Payne called the staff cutback the result of more than a year's study and consultation with members of the faculty and administration. "We're moving this institution toward excellence in realigning our resources," she said.

One board member suggested that cuts in the administration should be looked at before approving faculty layoffs. Others omplained that the cuts were being made as city officials are working on a deal that would place a new financial burden on the university -- operation of a new law school.

The vote came just three days before Rafael Cortada, slated to become president Oct. 1, arrives on campus as a consultant.Staff writer Douglas Stevenson contributed to this report.