The University of the District of Columbia is dismissing more than 20 faculty members to make room for the return of some teachers fired in a 1997 reduction in force that two federal courts later declared was implemented illegally.

UDC officials, who are trying to attract new students for the fall semester and to maintain stability at the city's only public university, said they are working to fix an error that has left the employment of dozens of people in limbo for more than two years.

"We have to be in compliance with the courts' orders, and that's what we are doing," said UDC President Julius F. Nimmons Jr. "There's no point in talking about whether we like it. We have to comply with the court."

The 1997 reduction was part of a plan to cut a deficit then amounting to $16.2 million. With permission from the D.C. financial control board, UDC fired 30 percent, or 125, of its full-time faculty members and 40 percent of the administration staff.

At the time, UDC officials said they decided whom to fire not according to seniority but based on whether there was student demand for a teacher's class and on which professors were able to bring in research money that helped support the university.

But the faculty's collective bargaining representatives said UDC violated a collective bargaining agreement that guaranteed teachers severance pay of one year's salary or one year's notice before being fired and that protected jobs based on seniority.

Two federal courts ultimately agreed that the control board had exceeded its power by authorizing the faculty firings without regard for rights granted under the collective bargaining agreement.

After reconsidering the firings, Acting Provost Beverly Anderson said, the university invited 28 people to return, 23 of whom decided to come back. She said that 21 people are being fired to make way for those UDC is rehiring and that the university is seeking different jobs for two employees who now fill faculty slots earmarked for other returning teachers.

UDC officials said they are unhappy that such decisions had to be made solely on length of service.

"It's by seniority, and I can't do anything about it," said Anderson, who added that she would have preferred that the school be able to use a range of criteria.

Chester Wright, head of UDC's advisory University Senate, said that he didn't like the idea of making firing decisions based on seniority only and that he hoped poor teachers would be removed through the evaluation process.

The "corrective" reduction in force comes at a time when UDC is hoping to maintain some stability after falling enrollment and the budget deficit, which was closed with the help of the 1997 firings.

In 1991, its appropriated budget was more than $75 million and student enrollment was about 11,000. The budget plummeted several years ago to $48 million and enrollment fell to 4,574 students. The current appropriated budget is $41 million, and enrollment last fall was 5,284, a figure that included a 70 percent increase in incoming freshmen.

But this spring and summer, enrollment dropped below projections to 5,100 for the spring term and 1,711 for summer. Some officials say enrollment was hurt when Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) floated a proposal, later dropped, to move UDC from its Northwest Washington campus to Anacostia.

"That killed us," said Anderson, whose comments were echoed by D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7,) head of the panel's education committee.

"The university was coming back," Chavous said. "There was no question about it. But despite his good intentions, the mayor's proposal to move the campus east of the river has had a chilling impact on enrollment. It created new instability. Lots of people told me they thought it would be safer to go to school in Prince George's or Montgomery [counties] while this was sorted out."

Nimmons said he believes there are a number of reasons enrollment dropped, not just the mayor's suggestion to move the school.

In its strategic plan for 1999-2001, a key initiative is improvement of student retention, identified as critical not only for financial survival but also for the fulfillment of the school's mission.

The strategic plan, the first the school has had in many years, also says that financial survival is dependent on improving student services, expanding programs that meet work force needs, getting more funding from the city, developing a comprehensive marketing and recruitment plan and increasing alumni donations.