Saturday, January 31, 2009

University of Idaho Cutting It's Undergraduate Physics Program

I wrote more than a year ago report on the going-ons in the UK where Reading University was scraping its undergraduate physics program and the brouhaha surrounding it. If people think that that occurs only in the UK, think again.

University of Idaho has just announced that they may be dropping the undergraduate physics degree program there.

The bachelor of arts and bachelor of science physics programs may be cut as a result of the university’s Program Prioritization Process. The PPP is a part of the University of Idaho’s Strategic Action Plan — a long series of decisions affecting the university’s future that was implemented in 2005. Interim President Steven Daley-Laursen said the PPP is an effort to increase the overall financial and academic efficiency of the university. The Provost’s Council oversees the PPP.

College of Science Dean Scott Wood said he recognizes the physics cuts detailed by PPP are not without controversy, but he said he hopes the cuts made in the undergraduate program will lead to a more focused and viable graduate program.

“Current faculty and staff are disagreeing with the recommendations,” he said. “There is some controversy there.”

No kidding! The students certainly made their message loud and clear here:

{Photo from Idaho Argonaut}

So, considering that one still has to teach intro physics, even when no undergraduate physics degree is being offered (physics is a requirement for many other subject areas, such as pre-med), and considering also that these undergraduate intro classes are usually the largest-enrolled classes and the largest part of the work load for physics teaching especially for a small department with small undergraduate physics majors, the argument that cutting the undergraduate degree would save the faculty from the teaching burden and have them focus more on research is rather silly. This is before we even talk about the mission of a "University", and whether such attitude is in contradiction to the charter for such an institution.

Not only that, they literally insulted physics majors by saying something like this:

Jack McIver, UI’s vice president of research, said concern had been expressed that faculty would not have as much undergraduate student help with research opportunities. Undergraduates can be utilized from other science departments to conduct physics research, he said.

And this was uttered by a physicist, no less.

The thing that strikes me in all of this is that the people who are deciding these things appear to have almost no appreciation of the importance of physics. I mean, look, I'm not naive that many schools are having to cut back on programs due to financial issues. Every single program in a school can make cases for why it is important. I'd rather the administration flat out say "Look, your program is small, but it costs a lot to maintain you. We simply have to cut programs and you're one of it." At least it's honest. The way they justified it here is INSULTING, because they're justifying it by denigrating the importance and relevance of the subject area.


Edit 02/02/09: I corrected an error on my part that indicated that it was the University of Utah. Apologies for the error.


Tometheus said...

Ahh, that brings back memories. I was the last physics graduate from my undergrad university. (La Sierra University in Riverside, CA... a church-run private school. By the time I graduated, religion and I had come to a parting of ways, so I was probably lucky to be able to graduate at all.) When he made the announcement, our university president said that "Physics is like Latin. Nobody uses it anymore." (And people wondered why I had a party when he announced his retirement.) The department still offers degrees in Biophysics and the department still runs the intro/general physics classes. Needless to say, I'm not a large contributor to my alma mater. At least I decided to go to a public institution for graduate work :D

ZapperZ said...

I wish you had saved that statement and some "official" documentation for posterity. Stupid statements like that need to be saved, including the person who said it.


Anonymous said...

Please correct your blog. The University of Utah is NOT cutting its undergraduate physics program. You cite another university in the headline and copy, and you wrongly referred to us. In fact, the University of Utah is expanding its undergraduae physics program to offer astronomy.

Lee Siegel
University of Utah Public Relations