When the Physics Department Is Under Threat

Nearly half of all physics chairs report their department is under some level of threat, ranging from closure to budget cutbacks. Physicists offer perspectives on how faculty can respond proactively.

February 10, 2021
 
Panelists speak at an American Physical Society session last week on how physics departments can respond proactively to threats.

It’s not unusual for Theodore Hodapp to get a call when a university physics department is under threat of cutbacks or closure. As director of project development at the American Physical Society for the last 16 years, he’s typically gotten one or two calls a year.

“I’ve now gotten, I think, six requests in the last year, just to give you a sense, and three in the last month,” Hodapp said last week at a session of the APS Annual Leadership Meeting, which was held virtually this year due to the pandemic. “We realize that this economic thing is hitting lots of places. It’s hitting smaller places more than it’s hitting bigger places, and we’re trying to work with departments as much as we can to help them out.”

Physics, a relatively expensive program to operate and a major that enrolls modest numbers of students, is one of many liberal arts and sciences disciplines that has come under increasing pressure in recent years as colleges dealing variously with decreased public funding, enrollment declines and demographic shifts have cut or consolidated degree programs and shifted resources toward fields that produce more majors. Those pressures have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Departments come to us and say, 'the provost woke up today and is going to close our program,' or 'the president says you guys are doing only four majors per year and I've got to close down all programs with less than 10,'" Hodapp said in an interview. "It's happening more frequently in the last six to seven years just because of the slow decline in public funding for higher education."

Hodapp said the stresses are greatest at regional public institutions, but increasingly APS is also seeing difficulties among physics departments at smaller private colleges. He said the pandemic has led to further reductions in enrollments and tuition revenue at smaller institutions.

The difficulties are widespread. During the session last Thursday on how professors can be proactive in responding to threats facing physics departments, Courtney Lannert, a professor of physics at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, presented data from a survey of physics chairs last spring and summer in which nearly half of respondents -- 45.2 percent -- said their departments have faced moderate or severe threats.

Specifically, respondents were asked whether their department faced a threat "such as significant loss of funding, significant reduction in faculty lines, or potential closure or merger of your department or degree program." Lannert said the percentage of respondents reporting moderate or severe threats was highest among respondents teaching at master’s-granting institutions (57.2 percent) and bachelor's-granting institutions (54 percent), while it was far lower for those at doctorate-granting institutions (22.9 percent).

"What we’re seeing is among bachelor’s- and master’s-granting institutions, over half of physics departments are saying they’re experiencing some level of threat to their existence," Lannert said.

Although the survey was conducted in May, after the start of the pandemic, respondents were asked to report only threats that were unrelated to the COVID pandemic and the associated economic strains.

“It’s important to realize that the threat levels reported here in this data are actually an underestimate given that we know COVID-19 has led to budget cuts, hiring freezes, etc.," Lannert said.

Lannert joined with Jim Borgardt, of Juniata College, in authoring a tool kit for departments under threat. The tool kit was informed by interviews with 50 different administrators and professors and identifies steps departments under threat can take according to different timetables. It offers concrete ideas for what they can do to work with administrators to advocate for their departments right now, and what they can do over one-year or three-year horizons to build relationships with administrators and other departments, rethink or restructure programs, and improve their pedagogy, departmental culture and recruitment and retention efforts. It also includes lists of actions departments can take depending on which metric they want to improve upon -- growing their number of majors, growing enrollments, supporting their institution's mission or growing the research portfolio.

While some physics departments are facing declines in majors, for others the number of majors they've long produced may simply no longer be deemed acceptable by administrators, Lannert said.

“There are a lot of departments that have had a steady number of majors that is just very small, and the institution is getting to the point where they’re saying having one to two physics majors for six faculty members is just not enough,” she said. “There are other departments, however, that are seeing decreases in their enrollments. I think a lot of that for a variety of departments was coming from demographic changes on that campus, either the kinds of students that were coming in, in terms of what they were interested in or in terms of what their background was. Having the nimbleness and the foresight to look at the students that are coming into your institution and be able to serve them and make a physics degree relevant to them was a thing that many departments were struggling with.”

"There are also departments that are under threat because the entire institution is experiencing a crisis," Lannert added. "The question of what that has to do with the physics department is a good one, but a lot of times the physics department looks more costly than many other departments, and so that was why many departments were under threat as well."

Hodapp said it's important for physics faculty to understand the perspectives of administrators who control an institution's purse strings.

"Some departments come and say, 'We're the physics department, we have to exist,' and those are the departments that are ultimately doomed," Hodapp said.

"Faculty especially need to think of themselves as part of the organization," he said. "Lesson one from the tool kit is there is an organization, you need to understand how people are thinking about it, and you need to make a plan that is consistent with how they think about it."

In addition to the tool kit, APS also released the first seven sections of its Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) guide last week. The online guide includes completed sections on recruiting undergraduate physics majors, retention of undergraduate physics majors, student advising and mentoring, career preparation, undergraduate research, computational skills, and high school physics teacher preparation. Five other sections are undergoing peer review and are currently available in draft form; 20 more sections are forthcoming.

During last week's session at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting, panelists spoke of common challenges facing physics departments, including the challenge of making physics attractive to more students.

The survey of department chairs found that the biggest problems chairs reported were low enrollment or retention of historically underrepresented groups, inadequate preparation of incoming students, financial resources, low enrollment in the major, and low enrollment in upper-level courses. Several of these issues came up in during the panel discussion, including the issue of attracting and retaining more diverse students to the field: APS data show that white men make up more than 60 percent of all American students earning physics degrees.

"One area where I feel unfortunately we in the physics community have not done well is in accessing the entire talent pool," said Robert Birgeneau, a professor of physics and chancellor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley. "We have to learn how to be more inclusive, and I think part of the problem is with the physics culture itself."

Another common challenge noted during the discussion was the varying levels of mathematical preparation among students. Mike Dubson, senior instructor and associate chair for undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, described this as “our No. 1 problem” and one for which professors “don’t have a good fix.”

“The distribution of grades on our exams is a flat distribution from F to A,” Dubson said. “About one-third of the students who are failing are failing because of poor math preparation. They haven’t mastered algebra. We don’t have a good way of fixing that problem at the moment. The fix is they go back to precalculus, but that puts them back a whole semester, and so there’s an economic and time penalty, which is really intolerable for most students, so they wind up simply dropping.”

Panelists also addressed challenges around recruiting students to physics. Willie Rockward, chair and professor of physics at Morgan State University, discussed several successful strategies used at Morgan State in Baltimore and at his prior institution, Morehouse College in Atlanta, both historically Black institutions.

"You're going to have to reach out to some of the area high school science departments," he said. "I've often found a good way is to be involved in the science fairs."

Now is also a good time, Rockward added, to do a newsletter about departmental accomplishments and send it out to area high schools.

Rockward also suggested physics departments partner with their university's admissions offices to identify promising incoming students.

"Believe it or not, there are a lot of students who are coming into programs who are undecided but have some very good skill sets," he said.

Rockward said developing precollege summer programs that are open both to incoming first-year students and to high school juniors and seniors can also be helpful.

"Even though some of them may already be prepared, it's good for them to get exposure to you and your department as soon as possible, which will increase the opportunity," he said.

"Department chairs need to send out personal emails, personal contacts to these students," he said. "Any of the students who show interest, potentially interest in their department, if they hear from a department chair, that speaks mounds to these students and shows that you have an interest in them coming into your program and your department."

Rockward said physics department leaders and faculty should visibly advocate for and promote their programs to help others see their value.

“In thriving departments, you will realize you always see that they are excited about what they do,” he said. “We're the No. 1 cheerleaders of what we do. If our students can’t see why we’re excited about it and the community can’t see why we’re excited about it, it’s going to be very hard for us to convince them to support us.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following publication of this article, Courtney Lannert said she misspoke in characterizing the survey results on threats facing physics departments. The survey asked respondents about whether they were aware of any threats their departments have faced, not just current threats.  

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