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The board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted last night to remove 17 faculty positions from the public institution, a move that follows the elimination last year of more than a dozen majors and programs as part of the Vision 2020 plan to “right-size” the school amid shrinking funds and enrollment. Professors who work in the departments that are being phased out will find out by August 16 whether they still have jobs, while students who have already begun studies in the eliminated majors will be taught those classes by adjuncts. Some professors who teach in eliminated majors may be able to teach in other departments.
By the end of the nearly four-hour meeting, it became clear that this is fight isn’t over: During the meeting, the president of the school’s faculty association said the group plans to challenge the staff cuts in court.
Twelve of the 13 board members were present, including one member who phoned in, although two left before some key votes were cast. In addition to voting on staff cuts, the trustees increased tuition by 2.5 percent and approved a contract to upgrade the school’s television station to HD. But the vote on faculty took up most the breathing room, with the fates of professors from the physics, history, special education, economics, and other departments on the table. The staff cuts passed with 11 votes, with only trustee Jerome Shelton abstaining.
Speaking to trustees, faculty association President Wilmer L. Johnson criticized the cuts, the result of reductions in the public university’s budget. The board, he said, is about to “put 17 Ph.D.s on the street due to some temporary arrangement that some people on the Council are pursuing.” Although Johnson lamented the school’s decline from about 15,000 students to its current enrollment of less than 6,000, he said the changes UDC is going through could be for the better if done right. “We need to work together to preserve where we have come without losing ground,” he said. “This city, as the demographics change, will demand a first-class public university, and we could do this in a cooperative way that doesn’t have to be a bloodbath.”
Specifically, Johnson said he was concerned with a lack of transparency regarding who will teach students taking the majors that are being phased out, complaining that he learned only recently that the trustees planned to rely on nonunion adjunct professors.
Trustee Joseph Askew asked a number of pointed questions about the plan to cut faculty in the physics department. He cited the example of one physics professor, whom he witnessed reaching out to the type of student who attends the university by bridging D.C. Public Schools science instruction to the kinds of concepts addressed in a college-level course. “Sure, you can find someone with great credentials, but can they teach this type of student?” he asked.
Responding to Askew’s question, Provost Rachel Petty said, “This is not easy, I do not like cutting anybody’s position, but this is necessary for the health of the institution.” She said that the majors that were cuts were in response to student demand.
After abandoning a plan to save that physics professor, Askew voted for the cuts along with 10 others.
Johnson said the faculty association, which is composed of city employees, isn’t done fighting. “The next step is getting our legal counsel involved,” he said.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery