APS News

APS Action Helps Save Physics Program at Northern Iowa

By Michael Lucibella

Helped by a concerted grassroots effort, professors and students at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) have succeeded in saving the Physics Bachelor of Science from elimination. Several other physics and physical science degrees, however, are being phased out because of a tightening budget.

UNI announced in late February that it would be closing down several of its physics programs as part of a broader restructuring effort. This sparked a backlash from the academic community, including APS, to protest the cuts. When the school’s Board of Regents approved the closure of 58 programs on March 21st, the physics BS was spared, although subject to “restructuring.”

Before the final vote by the Board of Regents, APS Executive Officer Kate Kirby sent an open letter to the school’s president and provost, asking them to reconsider the decision to close down the physics program.

“The American Physical Society hopes that you will reconsider this action in light of the significant role played by UNI in educating high school physics teachers, providing physics education to all of the science and mathematics majors at UNI, and in providing a robust undergraduate physics program,” the letter reads. “We recognize that budgetary challenges facing UNI and other universities force difficult choices. We welcome the opportunity to work with the UNI Physics Department and administration to provide a high quality physics program for Iowa and the surrounding region.”

Provost Gloria Gibson said that the administration was swayed by the outpouring of support behind the BS, and the amount of external funding the program brought into the university, reportedly about $4 million in the last six years.

The action at UNI came in the wake of similar closings of several physics programs at universities in Texas, as reported in the December, 2011 APS News.

The other physics programs at UNI that are getting the axe include the applied physics Professional Science Masters, Bachelors of Arts in physics and the Bachelor of Science in applied physics. In addition, both the geology BA and BS are slated to be canceled along with the geology and astronomy minors. The physics education degree was not affected.

Students already enrolled in the programs will be able to finish their degrees, but no new students will be accepted. According to statements from the president’s office, no tenured faculty positions should be affected. It is unclear how many non-tenured positions might be cut.

Physics professor John Deisz said that the extent of the cuts and the speed with which they were implemented came as a surprise.

“It’s like a meteorite hit here; nobody knew it was coming. We’re kind of assessing the wreckage,” Deisz said.

He added that although there had been indications that cuts were coming, the full extent was unexpected. Earlier this year the Board of Regents voted to close the university’s Malcolm Price Laboratory School, part of its College of Education, on June 30.

“Over the past several months, the administration has said they were going to chart a new course to meet budget constraints,” Deisz said.

On Monday, February 27, the faculty senate was called into a meeting with the administration where the heads of departments were given a preliminary list of which degrees would be cut. In general, undergraduate programs that graduated fewer than 10 students a year at the 11,000 student school were to be cut. The list was not released to the general student body or faculty at first, but the list of cut programs soon was leaked broadly. 

The following Friday, more than 250 faculty assembled and passed a motion of no-confidence in  the school’s administration. In addition, they released a statement denouncing the proposed cuts, and the way the administration put together its list of terminated programs.

“Let it be known that the UNI Faculty Senate does not endorse or condone any recommendations being made for program closures nor does it fully understand the criteria or justifications for specific recommendations,” the letter reads. “The UNI Faculty Senate condemns the process used to arrive at these recommendations as contrary to the accepted practices for an institution of higher learning.”

Members of the faculty, including Deisz, began appealing to local media and politicians to find a way to minimize the impact on the university’s academic programs.

“Certainly the budget has been cut a lot, but the decision to make these cuts is more of a strategic decision,” Deisz said. “They want to spend more money on high enrollment programs.”

Representatives from the school’s administration were unavailable to comment about the closings. In a statement dated March 8th, university president Ben Allen explained the reason behind the cuts. “The academic program closures and restructuring are needed so we can re-allocate resources to high-demand and potential-growth programs. On average, the programs listed for closure graduated fewer than two students per year over the last five years.”

In addition to APS, other national organizations weighed in on the proposed cuts as well. The American Association of University Professors said in a statement that it would be opening an investigation into the planned cuts at UNI.

“That investigation should begin soon. One possible outcome is the listing of UNI on AAUP’s national list of censured institutions,” the statement reads.

The university president responded to the AAUP’s concerns in a three-page letter, saying the university acted in accordance with its faculty’s employment contracts.

“In summary, UNI fully intends to honor its obligations to faculty, as specified in the collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the faculty union. The University is also highly committed to principles of academic freedom and shared governance, and it believes that the process leading up to these closure decisions honored these principles,” President Allen wrote.


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Editor: Alan Chodos