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Budget Woes, Calls for Efficiency Imperil Physics Programs

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board wants to eliminate degree programs with low enrollment — like physics. Critics, including many professors, say that could do lasting harm to the state.

Carlos Handy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics  at Texas Southern University, teach a Physics 2 class in Houston Wednesday, September 14, 2011.

Physicist Carlos Handy moved from Georgia to Texas in 2005, excited about building a physics program at Texas Southern University. But after serving as chairman of the department for six years, he may soon have to oversee its dismantling.

State budget cuts have placed a premium on efficiency-boosting measures in higher education. This year, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the agency that approves and disapproves degree programs, implemented a more stringent annual review system for eliminating those with low enrollment. Programs that fail to graduate an average of five students per year over five years face being cut (current students would be allowed to graduate, but new enrollment would be halted). Institutions had the opportunity to request a temporary exemption, which could last two or four years, or permission to combine their underenrolled programs with more robust ones. Any appeals of the 94 requests that were denied — like Handy’s — are due Friday, with final decisions to be made at a board meeting in October.

Critics of the review system, including many professors, complain that it fails to distinguish between disciplines and, in some cases, may not produce the desired savings. The new rules, they say, could do lasting harm to the state. This sentiment is particularly strong among physicists, whose discipline is essential for students hoping for careers in science or engineering.

Low enrollment in physics is a widespread problem. Nearly 60 percent of the state’s undergraduate physics programs failed to meet the initial bar. According to the American Physical Society, a professional society of physicists, if the same 25-students-in-5- years standard were applied nationally, 526 of about 760 programs would be shuttered.

“Physics is a true canary in the mine, so to speak, of judging America’s capabilities in terms of science,” Handy said. “If you let physics go, it’s symptomatic of the fact that something has eroded in the intellectual capacity of academic institutions.”

Handy and his fellow physicists say addressing the enrollment problem requires more qualified physics teachers in secondary education to increase enthusiasm for the subject among younger students. In recent years, Texas has fallen far short of its goals for increasing the number of graduates and certified teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — fields.

Raymund Paredes, the Texas higher education commissioner, said that programs that were en- rolling and graduating students were a vital part of the state’s STEM initiatives. “If they’re not, they’re not,” he said. “We can’t afford the luxury of idealizing courses without actually enrolling in them.”

But Mario Diaz, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said he worried that eliminating physics programs would deprive students without resulting in meaningful savings. Physics is a prerequisite for many other majors, so qualified professors will still be required. Plus, he said, physicists bring in substantial amounts of outside research financing. “You’ll be losing a lot of money if you fire the physicists here,” he said.

The University of Texas System recently committed millions of dollars to expanding UTeach, a program for teacher training and placement in STEM fields, in the Rio Grande Valley. Michael Marder, a physics professor at the University of Texas and director of UTeach, said the notion that the local physics program could be shut down just as the initiative begins is “really astonishing.”

He said the state has sufficiently alerted physics professors of the need to step up their recruitment efforts, but closing the programs would do more than send a message. “It removes the possibility of fixing the problem in the future,” Marder said. “It hurts a lot more than the people whose programs you just shut down, and I don’t know how you come back from it.”

A coordinating board document with the current status — which could change, depending on the coordinating board's decisions in October — of the more than 540 at-risk programs from various disciplines is below.

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