For more than five years, Zachary Kjeldsen worked as a high school lacrosse coach in Miami. He sent plenty of kids to college programs but had never played at that level himself, or even graduated from a four-year college. So when Kjeldsen completed his associate degree at Miami-Dade College, he decided he had to give it a shot.

“I sent enough students to college,” says Kjeldsen, now 29, “so I figured I’d go myself.”

Researching schools with NCAA Division II lacrosse programs, Kjeldsen came across the University of the District of Columbia, which in recent years has struggled to attract residents of the District, let alone students who live in Miami. Even for its division, the university wasn’t a lacrosse powerhouse; in fact, it was in the early stages of launching men’s and women’s teams, having just hired coach Scott Urick, a former Georgetown lacrosse player and assistant coach. Kjeldsen met with college lacrosse coaches from all over, but said that when he met with Urick, he became convinced that UDC was the right fit. He wanted to be part of something new.

“Within five minutes I was sold,” Kjeldsen says. “I liked his philosophy: Quality people make quality players.”

Last fall, Kjeldsen enrolled as a junior at UDC and began practicing with the team, months before the start of the season. But in November, he learned that the team’s first season might also be one of its last.

That month, the university’s interim president, James Lyons Sr., presented his Vision 2020 plan, a proposal to “right-size” the university in the face of shrinking enrollment and flagging funds. Among its measures, the plan would have phased out by 2018 the entire athletic department, which was hemorrhaging millions of dollars each year. The proposal followed the D.C. Council’s May 2012 demand that UDC make significant budgetary changes. In 2012, according to the Vision 2020 plan, the university spent more than $32,000 per student—a figure that’s about 55 percent higher than at comparable public institutions. The plan proposes to bring that figure down to $30,723 in 2020.

Students who come to UDC to play sports would be out of luck. “That was my drive coming here,” Kjelsden says. “I wanted to play.” Why else would a guy from Miami come to UDC?

* * *

The University of the District of Columbia Firebirds don’t get much attention in D.C., especially compared to the Division I programs at Georgetown University and George Washington University. But the prospect of the nation’s capital losing the sports program at its only public university was enough of a shock to make headlines in the Washington Post and education blogs, which largely weighed the merits of cutting the athletic program versus academic majors. In addition to the sports department, Lyons proposed slashing 23 academic programs with low enrollment numbers.

At the time, Lyons told the Post that he wasn’t being anti-athletic, just doing what was best for the entire university. He wrote in his Vision2020 proposal that decreasing enrollment numbers help take a large toll on the university’s finances, bringing it close to defaulting on its debts. Cutting staff and slashing underenrolled programs, he argued, would allow UDC to strengthen the programs that it still offered. In place of the NCAA athletic program, he proposed investing $1 million in a campuswide health and wellness initiative. “The University can no longer attempt to be all things to all people,” he wrote.

Students and faculty rallied against the cuts. The university hosted four public forums; Donnel Jones, the student body president and walk-on lacrosse player, says he helped encourage students to speak out against the plans. He also helped organize a packed rally in the university’s main plaza before the board voted on the proposals. The Firebirds, he says, are an integral part of student life on the largely commuter campus, giving students “something to look forward to” and a reason to stay in Van Ness outside of classes.
The proposals to cut the majors and the athletic program “came out of nowhere from the students’ perspective,” Jones says. “We had rallies, student surveys, town halls, you name it…We made sure students spoke up.”

And, in part, it worked. While the Board of Trustees voted to axe 17 majors, including sociology, economics, history, and physics, it initially delayed a decision to disband the athletic program and eventually dropped the idea altogether. On Feb. 18, the Vision 2020 plan passed, sans athletic cuts.

“Based on the Board action intercollegiate athletics continues at the University of the District of Columbia and there is no pending action to discontinue this program,” university spokesman Michael Rogers writes in an email.

The news was a relief for student-athletes like Jones and Kjelsden, but it also meant that the school had to look elsewhere to find $16 million of cuts or revenue over five years.

* * *

While sports will stay a part of campus lifefor the indefinite future, the arguments in favor of slashing the athletics department weren’t without their merits. In fiscal year 2013, the department cost around $4.1 million and brought in slightly more than $1.1 million in revenue. That’s a $3 million price tag on a program that currently serves about 125 students. (In fall 2013, there were 2,026 four-year undergraduates and 5,353 students enrolled in all facets of the university, including graduate programs and the community college.) The university estimated in its Vision 2020 plan that between 2015 and 2020, the athletic program would cost about $16.5 million after accounting for projected revenue. According to the final plan, the money that the university would no longer be saving from a disbanded athletic department could be scrounged up through a combination of fundraising, tuition increases, student fee increases, and facility consolidations.

On top of that, only a small portion of UDC athletes are actually recruited from the District. Of the 23 players on the men’s lacrosse roster, for instance, none calls D.C. his hometown. (The team does, however, have four players from Canada and one from the Netherlands.)

Division II sports programs are typically money-losing propositions, especially those, like UDC’s, without a football team. If the teams are good, though, they can help improve a school’s image. But a powerhouse sports program—which UDC’s is currently far from being—would probably do little to solve the school’s reputational woes. Today’s enrollment numbers are a third of the 15,000 students it boasted in the 1970s when the Washington Technical Institute, Federal City College, and D.C. Teachers College merged to form UDC, a land-grant institution and a designated historically black university. The university created a new, and cheaper, community college division in 2009 and in the fall of 2013, enrollment there was greater than at the Van Ness flagship, 2,686 students to 2,026 students. In a 2013 UDC internal survey, just 3 percent of all students said they perceived athletic opportunities to be important to student success.
In D.C., the university has come to be viewed as a last resort for many local, college-bound students. In 1999, Congress didn’t help matters for the school when it passed legislation that would provide $10,000 tuition grants for D.C. students to attend any public institution around the country. Now, top-performing students that UDC would want to attract can opt to attend a more prestigious public institution out of state for a comparable cost.

At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange has made investing more in UDC a central component of his current mayoral campaign platform. An effective public education pipeline in D.C., he argues, would start with preschool and end with homegrown students graduating from UDC before they enter the workforce. The D.C. government, according to Orange, should draw on reserve funds to invest more in the university. “I believe the D.C. government is doing well financially and should be able to cover it,” Orange says. “As mayor I’m going to make sure that UDC does not fail, and I am going to make sure that we offer baccalaureate and post-graduate programs as well as athletics that are worthy of being in the nation’s capital—and we can afford it.”

Despite the program’s scrimmage with death this year, Patricia Thomas, UDC’s athletic director, insists her staff isn’t having trouble selling the school to prospective athletes; they’re on track, she says, to recruit a full class of about 25 student-athletes. This, according to Thomas, is good for the university. These students—most of whom would not have attended UDC if not for sports—are bringing money to the school, either through NCAA money or out-of-pocket tuition contributions. And for better or worse, most athletic recruits are out-of-staters and pay twice as much per credit hour than D.C. residents.

Still, Thomas says she’s trying to recruit more local students. She adds that one of the reasons the department chose to start a lacrosse team is because of the sport’s popularity in the D.C. area. “We can recruit and be successful in a reasonable amount of time because of where we are,” she says of lacrosse.

UDC brought on Thomas in 2008 to rebuild the beleaguered department, and she says that it’s currently in “a very good place,” never mind its unconsummated visit to the chopping block. When Thomas came on, the NCAA had just placed UDC’s program on a five-year probation for what officials called the “single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen by the committee.” Between 2000 and 2004, the school reportedly allowed 248 students to participate in the athletic program while they were ineligible to do so, according to Inside Higher Ed. During the first year of probation, the NCAA barred all UDC teams from post-season play.

By 2011, the program had been accepted into the NCAA East Coast Conference Division, which at the time the school said was “another step in the university’s comprehensive transformation efforts.” UDC has been fully off probation since January 2014 and still has plans for further expansion. Following this year’s launch of lacrosse, the program hopes to add men’s and women’s swimming. Still, as part of UDC’s “right-sizing” efforts, the athletic department’s budget has been cut by $500,000—a reduction that will remain in place at least through 2020. But through its NCAA membership, which gives the school money for students that participate in sports, the new lacrosse program was possible. “The UDC athletics department is alive and well,” Thomas says.

Performance-wise, the program is nowhere near its 1982 heydey, when the men’s basketball team won the NCAA Division II championship. Still, it has had some accomplishments this year. The women’s basketball team has had a standout season, winning its first East Coast Conference Championship in March, which earned the team a spot in the Division II championship tournament. Members of the women’s track and field team similarly qualified for the NCAA Division II Indoor Track & Field Championships.

According to the Thomas, the threat of losing the whole program has in fact strengthened it. “It’s brought the entire department together, our coaches, staff, and students,” she says. “The biggest lesson we were able to apply is to face challenges and visualize success.”

But now that the drama of losing the sports program is finished, the Firebirds have faded from the little limelight they briefly had. There’s been scant mention of the new lacrosse team or the women’s basketball team’s impressive performance in local media, which makes it hard for the athletic department to prove it’s improving the image of the school.

The athletic department may have been able to convince its board that it was worth keeping. Now it just has to prove to its city that it’s worth paying attention to.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery