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UDC trustees end 17 academic programs, delay proposal to disband athletics

Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted Tuesday night to delay a proposal to disband the school’s intercollegiate sports teams, strongly signaling that they want the school to remain in NCAA Division II athletics. But they approved the end of 17 academic degree programs that have drawn relatively few students.

The proposal from the university’s interim president, James E. Lyons Sr., marked a major effort to reshape the struggling public university. Lyons sought to end participation in NCAA sports, including men’s and women’s basketball. The athletic program cost about $4.1 million in the past fiscal year, more than the $1.1 million it generated in revenue. Lyons said money spent on the Firebirds teams, which have only a handful of athletes from the District, would be better spent on health and wellness programs and intramural athletics available to all students.

But the Board of Trustees voted 7 to 5 to delay action on disbanding sports teams and seek other ways to find savings. Jerome Shelton was one of several trustees who voted against the motion because they said they wanted to cast a clear vote in favor of preserving the athletics program.

“It is critical to the life of a university that there be these types of opportunities,” Shelton said. “Please understand, this is almost a life-or-death question for me.”

Elaine Crider, the board chairwoman, who voted with the majority, said she was “not in agreement” with eliminating intercollegiate sports.

Trustees largely supported proposals by Lyons to reshape the curriculum in what he described as a bid to forge stronger connections with employers in the Washington region. They voted to eliminate undergraduate majors in subjects such as sociology, which has 31 students, as well as economics (23 students), history (20) and physics (four), according to data from UDC. The school will use money saved from the cuts to bolster remaining programs.

A few degree programs that had been considered for elimination were spared in the final version of Lyons’s proposal, including an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Trustees also voted to preserve a major in elementary education and delay action on cutting a major in special education.

The board room, on the third floor of Building 39 on the main campus on Connecticut Avenue NW, was filled with students, faculty and others worried about cuts.

“Let your voice he heard! Let’s work together! Stop the vote on Nov. 19th by the UDC Board of Trustees,” one sign in the audience said.

University officials have said students now in programs slated for elimination would be allowed to finish their degrees in those subjects. Also, the university would continue to offer many courses in the targeted subjects.

Lyons took over the university in March, a few months after the board fired Allen L. Sessoms.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) declined to give his opinion on the proposal, saying he hadn’t read it yet. He does not have direct executive authority over UDC but wields influence because nine of the 13 trustees are mayoral appointees. The city also provided nearly 40 percent of the $169 million in the university’s budget for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

“I do want to indicate that I support the leadership that is trying to make sure that we have a University of the District of Columbia that survives,” Gray said Monday. “I’ve worked as closely as I can with Dr. Lyons, with the board, but they are independent of us too. They don’t have to ask us for permission to do anything.”

The city government has pressured UDC for more than a year to cut costs.

Lyons’s proposal says UDC’s accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, is giving the university scrutiny in advance of a 2016 review.

“Representatives of the commission have warned the university that it needs to identify a niche, define its value for the specific demographic groups it serves, and focus on improving quality, or face loss of its accreditation,” the proposal states.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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