Termination of the physics program at Midwestern State University will not save money, but will cut off opportunity (from the Times Record News of Wichita Falls, Texas)

From the Times Record News:

Don’t plan to major in physics if you enroll at Midwestern State University.

Effective immediately, new MSU students will be unable to choose the major that hones in on Legendre polynomials, Bessel functions, Fourier transforms, electromagnetic fields, quantum mechanics and relativity.

To save money, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted unanimously Thursday to shut down MSU’s physics major and to phase out or consolidate five more of the 13 state undergraduate physics degree programs that it called “underperforming.”

MSU has graduated seven physics majors in the past five years — too few to meet the state’s new standard of 25 in a five-year period.

It was part of a sweeping move last week by the Coordinating Board to use the state’s money more efficiently, according to board members. The board torched 64 degree programs in a variety of subject areas that didn’t meet its new standards of producing at least five undergraduate majors per year averaged over five years.

In all, about 200 programs statewide were cut of the 545 programs considered too small to be cost effective by the new standards.

The board eliminated master’s degrees that didn’t produce an average of three per year and doctorates that didn’t result in two degrees per year.

MSU will continue to offer a physics minor, and its two physics professors will continue teaching the physics classes that undergird majors like chemistry and engineering, according to Jesse Rogers, MSU president.

MSU will not save any money by dropping the physics major, he said.

In recent years, the state has pushed courses in STEM fields — science, technology engineering and math — which made Thursday’s elimination of physics programs like MSU’s particularly surprising, Rogers said.

He knew MSU’s program was small, as physics programs typically are, but he never expected it to be ditched.

“I do think they need to consider the subjects they’re doing this in,” Rogers said Tuesday. “In my40-something years here, MSU has never produced 25 physics graduates in five years. We all thought — all of us at these schools — thought because of the nature of the subject we would be given an exemption every year if we’d ask for it. It turned out it wasn’t the case.”

There are too many mediocre Ph.D. programs throughout the state that aren’t needed, Rogers said. “I generally agree with what the Coordinating Board is doing in terms of productivity,” he said.

But the dropping of physics programs is shortsighted, he said.

Lynwood Givens, a regent with MSU, majored in physics at MSU and went on to earn a doctorate in physics at the University of Texas-Austin. He said Tuesday he represents the type of student most hurt by this decision — the rural student from a poor or middle-class working family who only can afford to attend a local university.

Givens grew up in Electra, 30 miles from MSU, and was a first-generation college student. After earning his Ph.D. in physics, he worked as vice president of the world’s first company to launch a commercial imaging satellite and as chief technology officer of Raytheon, the nation’s fifth largest defense contractor.

“None of this would have been possible without a physics major at MSU. None of it. At least, not for me,” he wrote in a letter to Raymund A. Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, before Thursday’s vote.

After the vote, Givens expressed his discouragement in the decision he said will inhibit the poor from attaining an advanced degree.

“They have damaged and hurt the very thing — STEM — that they say they want to promote,” he said. “No one on that board wants to damage education in Texas. But I differ very strongly in my opinion of the net effect. They feel they’re saving money. The other side of the coin: If it’s so important, let Midwestern put the emphasis on it.”

If all states judged their programs by the production standards that Texas is following, 500 of the 700 physics baccalaureate degree programs in the nation would be wiped out, Rogers said.

While the workforce may not absorb a huge number of physicists, the subject is critical to all sciences, Rogers said.

“If we start dropping programs like that, we’re outsourcing our thinking to other countries,” Rogers said.

MSU Provost Alisa White attended Thursday’s vote of the Coordinating Board. “I think it’s a shame,” she said. “I understand it. I can’t say I agree with it.”

She expects the dissolving of the physics major will have a “dramatic” impact on the North Texas region for students who can’t afford to go elsewhere. “We’re closing the door on them,” she said.

White said the Coordinating Board suggested improving a consortium of smaller colleges so they can work together to provide physics education for schools like MSU through distance learning or online courses. “It is doable,” she said. “We all have to make sure we’re on the same page in rigor and assessment.”

Coordinating Board member Munir Lalani, a former MSU regent, said Tuesday that he voted for and agreed with the decisions made Thursday to cut programs.

“Any time when you’re barely graduating two to three kids a year, it’s very difficult,” he said. The Consortium proposal would benefit MSU and other small universities. It would sure help save taxpayers’ money and allow students to get what they want.”

The Coordinating Board received a deluge of letters “from all over” protesting the cuts, he said. The STEM courses are important, he said, but his research showed that the board’s cuts would eliminate fewer than 2 percent of students from the 6 percent of schools that were affected. “For these 2 percent, we’re still coming up with some kind of alternate plan,” he said. “The effect will be very, very low.”

MSU students currently majoring in physics will have until 2018 to graduate.

The move was troubling to Rogers because of the negative impact he expects it will have on the state and nation.

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3 Responses to Termination of the physics program at Midwestern State University will not save money, but will cut off opportunity (from the Times Record News of Wichita Falls, Texas)

  1. Pingback: Termination of the physics program at Midwestern State University … | My Blog

  2. Doc Carr says:

    Givens, whose physics degree from a small school led to a PhD at Texas writes: “No one on that board wants to damage education in Texas.” How does he know that? Is he assuming they did not read his letter and can claim ignorance as an excuse? Perhaps, as someone who moved from the bottom half of the 99% to the 1%, he can’t believe people would limit access to education in a case where money allegedly is not an issue.

    My example is a very small, rural part of the Wisconsin system that produced a top notch physics student every 5 to 10 years that somehow ended up at Michigan State. One of those came up with a key invention for anti-missle defense. Their hands-on experience and depth of knowledge from what amounted to individual study as undergrads made them exceptionally prepared as graduate students.

    I find the thinking that you can teach an advanced undergrad lab via distance learning to be spectacularly naive. I hope saner minds figure out how to keep upper division classes available so students can earn a minor with enough meat in it to qualify for graduate school or a job where STEM skills are in demand.

  3. Doc Carr says:

    I could believe money is not an issue because “some kind of alternative” is likely to increase costs simply because of the bureaucracy needed to design and implement it, and there is no mention of eliminating adjunct faculty who helped teach intro-level classes. Clearly they made the decision without developing that alternative and evaluating its cost.

    But money is an issue in Texas, as it is in Florida, so Midwestern State better be worried about what must be a small and expensive engineering program. I say this because we have two PhD physics professors at my community college, each teaching a 15 credit class load with full classes and no time to run upper division classes for physics majors, let alone all of the intro labs. We must produce many more engineering majors transferring out of our CC than they do from that physics department at a state university in Texas.

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