Budget Cuts Threaten Physics Programs
By Michael Lucibella
Budget woes in states across the nation have led to at least four schools closing down physics or physics-related majors.
Because of shortfalls in revenue, state boards of education have been forced to scrutinize the academic programs offered at schools and universities under their purview.” The result is that universities have had to make significant budget cuts,” said Theodore Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity. “Physics is almost always on the chopping block because of the small number of majors at these smaller schools.”
Universities have had to take a hard look at enrollment in their offered courses, and often they’ve scaled back the physics programs, either by cutting certain physics-related majors, or physics majors themselves.
Hit hardest by state cuts is the Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which dropped eight degree programs including its physics major, its chemistry major, its physics education major and chemistry education major.
“They’ve terminated both physics and chemistry, along with a couple of other programs at the end of the spring semester,” said Paul Withey, the head of the physics and chemistry department,
All the full-time positions will be cut, and the school plans on hiring instructors to teach the basic and service courses. Tenure has been revoked for professors in the affected departments. The university offered instructor positions to the formerly tenured faculty at a significant pay cut, but those affected have shown little interest in the offer.
“It took us all by surprise that not only would all the programs be eliminated, but also all the faculty,” Withey said “Physics is such a fundamental science, and it applies to all the other sciences and engineering. It doesn’t make sense for a university to completely eliminate the degree.”
Missouri has also had to cut out the physics major at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, MO.
“The governor of Missouri ordered a program review of all campuses in the state of Missouri system and said he’d consider eliminating all programs that graduate less than ten students a year,” said John Shaw, an associate professor of theoretical physics at Northwest Missouri State. “At Northwest they have eliminated a number of programs, of which the physics program was one.” The physics program at Northwest Missouri State graduated on average between one and two undergraduate majors.
“It was primarily because of low graduation rates in those areas,” said Douglas Dunham, Provost of the university. “It was hard to argue at the state level over the last four years that it was a program we should keep.”
Physics was one of six other bachelor’s degrees and one masters also slated for deletion. Students already enrolled in the programs will be allowed to graduate, but the physics major will not be offered to future classes.
Physics classes won’t completely disappear from the campus. While adjuncts will likely be let go, the three full time faculty members are expected to be retained to teach service courses, general education requirements, classes for the physics minor and an upcoming bachelors degree in nanoscience.
“About three years ago we developed an undergraduate degree in nanoscale science,” Dunham said. “We decided we would eliminate our straight physics major and focus on our nanoscience program.”
Missouri State University in Springfield, MO has also had to trim its physics offerings because of the state budget shortfalls. Though keeping its physics major, the school had to eliminate its engineering physics bachelor’s degree.
“Physics is always the smallest of the sciences,” said David Cornelison, head of the physics, astronomy and materials science department. “We were already going to make some changes, but we had to make some hard decisions over a short period of time.”
Missouri State recently created a full engineering major and the engineering physics degree has dwindled as more students have opted to take straight engineering. No faculty are expected to be let go, and students already enrolled in the major will be allowed to finish their degree.
“We will ensure that they can graduate. There is no immediate plan to eliminate those courses,” said Tamara Jahnke, dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences, referring to classes that current engineering physics majors need to finish their degrees. She added that she would resist any moves to cut the physics major, “I do not want to see the elimination of the whole department ever.”
North Arizona State University in Flagstaff, AZ has similarly had to eliminate its engineering physics bachelor’s degree along with its “physics and math” major.
“The reason that this degree is going away…is because they are under-enrolled” said Kathy Eastwood, a professor of physics and astronomy. “It’s the degree that’s going away, not the department. No one’s lost their job yet.”
Though disappointed to see the major go, Eastwood and the rest of the department opted not to fight the administration on the elimination of engineering physics. The course had not been accredited by ABET and the university had been issuing warnings that the major was under-enrolled for several years. The Arizona State Board of Education requires that a major graduate 24 students in three years, while only three students had graduated with the physics and engineering degree in that time.
However, Eastwood is gearing up for more potential budget cuts next year. “I have a horrible feeling that we’re going to have fight for the next one,” she said. “I will fight like hell if they try to make us get rid of physics.”