Wrought in financial peril, trustees at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) voted last week to cut 17 academic programs to restrain costs while preserving, at least for now, the school’s athletic programs. The decision will allow UDC to remain a part of the NCAA’s Division II, where its participation costs the school about $4.1 million even though it generates just $1.1 million in revenues, according to the Washington Post.
The programs UDC cut range from sociology to economics to physics, majors that have small enrollments at the school of 5,100. The sociology program, according to the Post, has 31 students; the physics major counts just four.
The trustees voted 7 to 5 to table a proposal that would have cut the athletics program entirely until a later date. The school’s interim president had proposed eliminating athletics and diverting the savings to wellness programs and intramural athletics, and it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t have been a better plan for UDC.
Though it’s easy to juxtapose this decision as an either/or decision, it probably wasn’t that simple. The budget woes weren’t necessarily caused by the athletics program, but by overspending and improper spending under the school’s previous president, who was fired in 2012. UDC may still eliminate sports, and even if it cut the athletics programs now, it may still have had to get rid of the small academic programs anyway. But even if it isn’t a clear cut either-or decision, it’s worth asking whether UDC is best served by spending — and losing — money on an athletics program, especially when a range of factors has brought the school’s accreditation under scrutiny ahead of its 2016 review. Preserving academic programs would seem to help its case on that front, and perhaps reconsidering how its athletic spending affects the rest of the school’s finances could too.
Interim president James Lyons cited accreditation concerns in his proposal that would have cut athletics to focus the school more on academics. “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,” Lyons said in the proposal, according to the Post.
While schools are always hesitant to cut sports because of the benefits they bring to schools, some have done so in ways that benefit the entire student body.
In 2012, Spelman College, a historically black women’s school in Atlanta, made that exact decision, electing to eliminate an athletics program that cost the school more than $1 million a year. Instead, it used the money to fund fitness and health programs for its students, in essence exchanging an athletics program that directly benefited just four percent of its students for activities with the potential to reach all 2,100 of its students. At the time, it was hailed as a model for schools that were trying to pare down costs in the face of state level budget cuts, lower-than-normal enrollment figures, and expensive athletics programs.
In a country that loves college sports even at the lower levels, that of course seems like a radical change. And without exact dollar figures, it’s impossible to know whether cutting sports would have saved all of the academic programs UDC cut. But as important as we often think college sports are, I think it’s worth it for schools to find ways to deliver the benefits of sports to more of their students in ways that don’t jeopardize academic programs that advance a university’s actual educational mission.