A sparse crowd watched the Firebirds of the University of the District of Columbia begin the men’s basketball season this week, a loss to New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University. It just might be the last home opener the Firebirds ever play.
UDC, which for years has struggled to fulfill the role of a public flagship university, is in the midst of an intensive quest to cut costs, raise revenue and define its mission. The university’s interim president, James E. Lyons Sr., wants UDC to add students, stay affordable and prepare graduates for jobs in high-demand fields.
To reach those goals, Lyons has proposed disbanding all of the school’s athletics teams, which play in the NCAA’s Division II. Lyons also wants to end several degree programs that have drawn few students, including those in disciplines such as physics, history, sociology and environmental science.
Lyons hopes to use millions of dollars in annual savings to grow enrollment through financial aid, strengthen the faculty, expand health and career services for all students, and launch more online classes. His proposal to overhaul the 5,490-student university on Connecticut Avenue NW is scheduled for a vote Nov. 19 at a meeting of the UDC Board of Trustees.
“It isn’t about being anti-athletics,” Lyons said in an interview. “It’s about choices. We’ve got to look at everything we do at UDC, put things on the table, and ask the questions.” Lyons, hired in March after the board fired the previous president, said his goal is to help the lone public university in the District be “in tune and in touch with the priorities of the city.”
Lyons cites a number of problems that have beset the school, including a perception among many employers that graduates don’t have the skills needed to get or keep jobs. UDC is overstaffed for the number of students it enrolls, and “the university can no longer attempt to be all things to all people,” according to Lyons’s draft plan.
On campus, some students are voicing concern. UDC student Tiffany Melton, one of perhaps 150 to 200 spectators Sunday afternoon in a gym that seats more than 2,000, said she worries that cutting not only varsity sports, but also an undergraduate major she is considering — sociology — would undermine the school.
“It seems like they’re messing with the school culture,” said Melton, 18, who is from the District. “I chose to come here because I wanted the university experience. It seems really unfair to us.”
UDC has long sought to define exactly what that experience should be. The university traces its roots to a public school established in 1851, but its modern identity took shape in 1977 through the merger of the Federal City College, D.C. Teachers College and Washington Technical Institute. The idea was to offer, under one umbrella, a quality higher education at an affordable price in a city that until then had no public university of its own.
In 1982, the men’s basketball team captured the Division II national championship after a stellar 25-win season. Its victory gave the UDC leaders a platform to campaign for quality.
“If there is one thing I want for the University of the District of Columbia, it is for UDC to become the university of first choice for a majority of the college-going population of the city,” UDC President Benjamin H. Alexander wrote that year. “Not the institution of last resort.”
But efforts to raise the university’s reputation have yielded uneven results in the decades since. UDC has been buffeted by complex city politics, administrative turnover and the inherent challenges of serving students who often need remedial instruction. It did not help UDC when Congress approved tuition assistance grants for D.C. residents to attend public colleges and universities outside the city, as well as certain private colleges and universities. That gave graduating high school seniors incentives worth thousands of dollars a year to choose other schools.
In 2009, UDC launched an open-admissions community college, now based at North Capitol Street. It has more than half of the university’s enrollment. UDC’s president at the time, Allen L. Sessoms, sought to raise academic standards for the four-year programs, establishing admission requirements and raising tuition. Full-time tuition and fees for D.C. residents in the four-year program now total a little more than $7,200 a year.
For more than a year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and other D.C. leaders have voiced concern about UDC’s expenses. Early this year, the university moved to cut 145 of its 830 staff positions through layoffs and other measures.
The city, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, provided about $65 million to the university, almost 40 percent of UDC’s $169 million operating budget.
Now Lyons is looking to make further cuts but also to raise revenue and position the university for growth. His plan would:
■End Division II athletics programs in basketball, lacrosse, tennis and a handful of other sports. UDC has 114 student-athletes, some of whom receive scholarships. That would save the university an estimated $4.4 million a year. Like many schools, UDC loses money on its athletic programs. But sports often can help build a school’s brand, and the question is whether the marketing value outweighs the expense. Lyons, in this case, is skeptical.
● Cut several academic programs deemed to have unacceptably low enrollment. The preliminary plan indicated that 23 out of 55 baccalaureate and graduate programs would be eliminated, but exactly which programs would be cut still appears to be under discussion. The plan would retain all 22 community college programs and two in the School of Law. The total saved would be about $3.8 million a year.
● Bolster remaining programs in biology, mathematics, psychology, nursing, information technology and numerous other subjects. Lyons is seeking to invest up to $11 million a year in faculty development by 2020. He also wants significant expansion of online education, student health and wellness programs, and career development. He proposed offering online master’s degrees in business administration and public administration — two key credentials in the Washington area job market.
● Grow enrollment by more aggressively marketing to adults and career-switchers within the city as well as students in D.C. public schools. Lyons envisions establishing a scholarship fund of $5 million a year by 2020, including merit awards for entering freshmen. He also recommends that the board consider adding residential dormitories to what is essentially a commuter campus on Metro’s Red Line.
Whether the board will go along with Lyons’s plan is unknown. Board Vice Chairman Christopher Bell declined to comment on the plan’s specifics.
“There’s going to be some tough decisions that really have to be made,” Bell said. “Part of that is defining what the university wants to be and where it should go.”
Michael Terry, 21, a senior guard from Philadelphia, said the basketball team is well aware of the debate but trying to avoid distractions.
“All of our guys are focused on the now, doing well on the court, doing well in the classroom,” he said after Sunday’s game, a 105-86 loss. Asked whether he wanted the Firebirds to continue as an NCAA team, Terry broke into a big grin: “Of course.”