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By Bushraa Khatib
In March, 2014, Southern Oregon University (SOU) announced suspension of its current physics major program. This surprising development — SOU was doing well in numbers, graduating about five majors a year — serves as a wake-up call to other small- to mid-size physics programs that could face similar situations.
SOU’s retrenchment plan states that “Programs targeted for cuts have low enrollment, attracting few students and producing very few graduates, or are not currently meeting the needs of the regional workforce.” Physics is not alone — art history, French, photography, professional writing, and film techniques were also eliminated. The university has agreed to let students that have finished their general physics requirements take two years to finish. The fate of faculty is uncertain at the moment.
To support the department and its students, APS and many other members of the physics community wrote letters to the university in support of continuing the major. SOU acknowledged that physics had considerable outside support, noting that, “The largest number of total comments (70) pertained to the proposed elimination of the physics major.” Unfortunately, this support did not sway the university.
Physics department chair Peter Wu says that he feels like a deer caught in the headlights. According to Wu, students are understandably upset but have not done much in response to the announcement. He wrote a proposal for the new streamlined program, but has not heard anything yet.
APS director of education and diversity Theodore Hodapp commented, “We are seeing many of these regional public institutions facing a similar threat, with the number of graduates being used as a proxy for viability.” Also, Paul Cottle, chair of the APS Committee on Education, warned that, “despite graduating smaller numbers, physics majors have a disproportionate impact on the economy, and broader educational goals of the nation.”
The closure of the physics major comes at a time of great uncertainty across SOU, with many factors making the future of physics there unclear. For example, the university president’s contract is up for renewal in July. The deans of Arts and Sciences were eliminated for financial reasons, transferring the physics department to the newly created science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) division. On top of this, nine months ago, Oregon passed legislation dissolving the Oregon university system, and SOU was asked to form its own regional board.
SOU’s decision to discontinue numerous programs is difficult to reconcile with legislation passed in 2011, known as the 40-40-20 rule. This bill aims to have 40% of adult Oregonians hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree, 40% hold an associate’s degree or a meaningful postsecondary certificate, and all adult Oregonians to hold a high school diploma or equivalent by the year 2025. (Oregon University System 40-40-20 Resources and Initiatives page).
Other administrative policies are also raising concerns at SOU. In past years, the lower division science requirement for many departments was three courses. Wu says that medium-sized universities typically survived by teaching large introductory courses with high enrollment, thus balancing out low enrollment in upper-level elective courses. But now, the university is planning to require only one such course. This is problematic for physics departments already struggling to justify their enrollments and numbers of graduates.
Wu says that reactions to this kind of situation depend on the particular institution — every university is different and there is no one-size- fits-all solution to keeping a physics department open when under threat of closing. To ensure survival, Wu says, “Small programs need to find their niche and find it soon. Don’t sit on your laurels too long.”
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