Physics Programs Face the Axe at Seven Texas Universities
By Michael Lucibella
Seven public universities in Texas are being told they have to phase out their physics undergraduate degrees, with three more being put on two-year probation. In an attempt to make the system more efficient, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), which oversees Texas’ 24 public universities, recently reviewed all of its public university’s undergraduate programs that produced a small number of graduates, and recommended a number for termination.
“In this time of budget cuts, states, in particular Texas, have been very adamant about cutting their budget,” said Mario Diaz, director of the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
In February, the THECB notified programs that produced fewer than an average of five undergraduates per year between 2006 and 2010 that they needed to reevaluate their programs by June. The programs that received a warning had the option to shut down altogether, combine their program with another degree or apply for a two-year temporary exemption to try and increase enrollment.
“What we are looking at is low producing programs,” said MacGregor Stephenson, assistant commissioner for academic programs and research on the THECB. He added that physics and other STEM programs weren’t singled out and many programs weren’t graduating the minimum number of students. “What we found was there were 545 programs that were low producing using those criteria.”
Of the hundreds of programs across the state found to be low producing, 307 requested temporary exemptions, 93 proposed a plan for consolidating degrees, and 145 offered to phase out their programs altogether. Eighty-seven of the requests for exemptions were denied.
Physics programs at Midwestern State, Prairie View A&M, Tarleton State, Texas Southern, University of Texas-Brownsville and West Texas A&M are all losing their undergraduate physics programs. Current students can finish out their degree, while no new physics students can be accepted. Texas A&M Commerce, the University of Texas-Pan American and Texas Tech are all on two-year probation.
Most of the schools with programs slated for termination are in rural regions, many in economically disadvantaged areas. In addition, several of the affected schools also historically graduate high numbers of female and underrepresented minority students.
Every few years, the THECB routinely reviews the universities it oversees to look for ways to cut costs and improve efficiencies.
“This is something that has been an ongoing effort at the coordinating board–to look at low producing programs,” Stephenson said. “One of the challenges is how to allocate resources and make sure that students are getting the education that they need.”
Daniel Marble, an assistant professor at Tarleton State University, does not think that shutting down the programs will save the state much money. Though the physics and hydrology degrees at his school are being discontinued, there are no planned layoffs associated with the shutdown.
“There’s no savings whatsoever,” Marble said. “Their job is to kill programs.”
He said also that graduation numbers alone were not indicative of the health of the program. On the one hand he said that the physics program at his school has grown over the last few years and was set to graduate at least 5 students in 2012 and 2013. In addition Tarleton participated in a consortium with five other rural Texas schools where a professor would teach a class at his or her home institution, and that lesson would be telecast to the other schools. While all the schools shared in teaching the courses, students only graduated from one of the institutions, making graduation rates seem smaller than the number of students enrolled.
Heather Galloway, director of the University Honors program at Texas State University San Marcos and a member of the APS Executive Board, said that she was worried about the effect that closing the programs would have on the state. Texas passed a law requiring that all high school students to take physics classes, starting in 2005. Galloway said she was worried that there would be fewer universities to produce high school physics teachers.
“At a time when we should be building capacity to produce physics teachers, we are cutting programs,” Galloway said. “There is a shortage of physics teachers and it’s not going to get better.”
Schools facing program shutdowns have one last appeal before them. In early October the university president can appear before the THECB and personally lobby to save programs. Most presidents have said they plan on fighting to keep the programs alive.