Rethinking physics at Maine universities

Professor Jan Kalinowski conducts a lecture for students at the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw October 23, 2012.
Professor Jan Kalinowski conducts a lecture for students at the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw October 23, 2012.
Posted Sept. 20, 2013, at 1:55 p.m.

It’s understandable for students and faculty to be upset about the possible elimination of the physics major at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. No one wants to be cutting programs. It makes the university look less competitive, and, on the surface, it could look like the university is abandoning science, a core subject.

Yet it would be irresponsible for the university to continue to offer a major that students aren’t choosing, especially when USM is part of a larger system that offers the subject. This is a chance for USM to re-imagine how it draws students to physics, such as by integrating physics into other majors, collaborating with the University of Maine in Orono, which also offers physics, or instead helping to make the physics program in Orono a larger draw.

For years the public has complained about university costs and called for the University of Maine System to adjust as the average size of Maine’s high school graduating classes decreases, and enrollment in Maine’s community colleges continues to grow. Yet universities are criticized when they try to get leaner.

USM hasn’t decided yet to stop students from declaring physics as their major. Academic programs are reviewed on a cyclical basis, and last year it was physics’ turn. The physics department graduates three or four students per year and has four professors, one of whom is retiring. Upper-level courses consistently have fewer than 12 students.

If the physics major were discontinued, USM would still offer physics classes. It’s required for other majors, such as engineering. No professor would lose his or her job. Students currently registered as physics majors would get to finish their program. The biggest changes would be the elimination of some of the upper-level physics classes and the end of the declared physics major for future prospective physics majors.

In 2009 the University of Maine System agreed to a plan for program review to save $8 million to $10 million each year over the following four years. Part of the plan involved the following guidelines: “review; grow; justify; or eliminate courses with enrollment of 12 or fewer” and “review; grow or eliminate academic programs with five or fewer graduates.”

As part of the ongoing discussion, professors, students and USM leaders can see if there are ways to boost the physics program and get more people enrolled, perhaps by creating stronger alliances with other science subjects at USM or across all campuses.

The broader view should involve examining how USM fits within the larger university system. What are its strengths, and the strengths of the other universities, and how can they be enhanced? What will Maine’s universities be known for?

Physics training offers a great background for many jobs, and it’s an important field to study. It’s possible for USM to merge the department into one that also includes engineering or chemistry — Orono has a physics and astronomy department, for example — or figure out a distance learning arrangement with Orono.

If options like those don’t make the major workable, it’s important to view the issue as it pertains to the system. Why prop up a program in one place when those resources could be used to enhance the one that’s working better elsewhere? If three or four physics graduates per year is suitable, when does it become unsuitable? One graduate? None?

Instead of thinking small, and trying to preserve the status quo, this is a chance to redesign university science programs, so they’re not only viable but successful. printed on July 25, 2014