Joni Robinson (left), a laboratory manager in the Department of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, joined other factuly members and students at a protest Tuesday.

Battle Over Budget Cuts

November 20, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The University of the District of Columbia's Board of Trustees eliminated nearly 20 academic programs Tuesday in an effort to refocus the university’s mission after financial and management struggles.

The board was poised to eliminate 20 academic programs, but voted against ending the elementary education program and has delayed a vote on the undergraduate program in special education, said Nilka Julio, a National Education Association staff member who worked with the faculty union to relay concerns about the plan. The board also delayed voting on whether to eliminate the university's intercollegiate athletics program, she said.

Many unhappy faculty members and students said the plan would hamper the ability of this city's only public postsecondary institution to offer quality, affordable education. The university was charged by Washington's City Council in May 2012 with outlining a plan to make the university consistent with the financial resources available. 

The Vision 2020 plan would reduce the university’s operating costs by 7.65 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to plan documents. At a rally before the board began its meeting Tuesday evening, faculty members and students spoke of administrative bloat and mismanagement, and lamented that academic programs would bear the brunt of the plan's impact. 

Daryao Kharti, a professor of physics, said he questions how the administration can fulfill its stated goal of strengthening its science, technology and mathematics offerings when the plan cuts the physics program and math statistics program. 

“Cutting programs does not build an institution,” said Kharti, also a member of the Faculty Senate. “It will simply downgrade the institution.”

Administrators and faculty members disagree whether faculty members were given a chance to contribute meaningfully to the design of the plan. Wilmer Johnson, president of the UDC Faculty Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, wrote in a letter to the Board of Trustees chairwoman that the Faculty Senate received the plan in late September and was given six days to provide formal comments.

“The Plan eliminates liberal arts programs, perpetuates disparities in higher education, continues to starve UDC of funds to carry out its mission, and hampers the University’s ability to offer quality and affordable liberal arts education," Johnson wrote. 

The alternative recommendations made by the Faculty Senate outline different funding sources for the university, including nonprofit development models, District of Columbia revenue bonds and the U.S. Department of Education’s HBCU capital financing program. The recommendations approved by the Faculty Senate outline reasons to keep many of the academic programs slated to be cut, but the recommendations do not single out any program that should be cut.  

Clarence Pearson, a professor in the Department of Architecture and the Faculty Senate chair, applauded how the administration handled the development of the plan. Pearson said he was speaking only in his role as professor and not in his role of Faculty Senate chair because the Faculty Senate’s recommendations to the administration did not propose drastic cuts to academic programs.

To ease the university’s financial distress, some academic programs have to be cut so other programs can be bolstered, he said.

"It's tough but somebody has to do it,” Pearson said. The problem is you can't give that responsibility to faculty members."

The 20 academic programs slated to be discontinued were chosen because they have low demand, do not produce consistent positive outcomes, are not current, or require unavailable resources, according to a memorandum that the interim president, James E. Lyons, sent to the Board of Trustees. Many of the major programs eliminated will become concentrations within other majors. Under the plan, the university will broaden its online offerings, expand its continuing education programs and invest in the current career center. 

The administration did make changes to its final draft after input from faculty, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and attendees at three public meetings held early November. The final Vision 2020 plan does not eliminate the chemistry major, the early childhood education major or the master's in rehabilitation counseling.

The university has been plagued by scandals in recent years. Last fall, the board fired President Allen L. Sessoms, who had been criticized for using university funds on first-class airfare. Lyons, a former secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and former president of three other universities, was named interim president last March.

Previously, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division II Committee on Infractions placed UDC on five years of probation beginning in 2008. The committee found that the university failed to track which athletes were eligible for competition and how much financial aid they were supposed to receive and did not cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation. Former athletics administrators violated the NCAA’s ethical conduct rules by refusing to answer questions to interviews or providing false and misleading information.

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