Monday, July 25, 2011

Hard Times for Physics Departments

In these uncertain economic times, physics departments are among the first places states and universities look for budget savings. Enrollment is typically low and laboratory based programs are expensive. Here at JMU we are fortunate to be a large department that is thriving in spite of the troubles. However, we have neighbors that are struggling to survive.

The July issue of the American Journal of Physics has an editorial in which the authors, Anura Goonewardene, Marian Tzolov, Indrajith Senevirathne and Donald Woodhouse, describe a new nanotechnology minor and applied physics track in the major at Lock Haven University. With this addition, they are finding success in growing their program and staying alive.

Although their success is to be applauded, the background against which this effort is undertaken is scary.
In Pennsylvania, according to this article, there are 14 universities. Of these, one does not have a physics major and one of the remaining 13 is closing in 2012. The article states that the state of Pennsylvania says,
Programs that averaged less than 6 students per year for the past 5 years are deemed “low enrolled” and are subject to review.
Of the 12 currently continuing departments, 9 are in danger. The authors note
The remaining programs are scrambling to develop strategies for survival, including collaboration with other schools and online delivery of low-enrolled upper division courses to reduce costs. If fewer than 6 graduates per year becomes the criterion for a low-enrolled program, 73% of the 505 bachelor’s-only degree granting institutions in the U.S. is “under enrolled.” Some, if not many, of these programs might be eliminated or significantly scaled back to the status of a “service” discipline unless they take active steps to increase enrollment. In these times the benefits to students of a thriving physics program are often secondary to the bottom line. 
This is a terrifying prospect for physics in this country.

Although we graduated only 13 this year, we have been averaging 18-20 in recent years and there's reason to believe that the 2012 graduating class will be of a size more typical for us. Nevertheless, being among the top ten largest undergraduate departments in the nation with graduating classes still in the teens is worrisome.

Physics programs are always small. It is not a topic for everyone -- we understand that. Let's just hope that legislatures realize before it is too late that even graduating small numbers, physics departments make a significant impact on our increasingly high-tech economy. If success is only measured by dollars spent and seats filled in a classroom, we are all in trouble.