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Faculty Support for Physics at USM
09/23/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Faculty from the University of Southern Maine traveled to Bangor today to ask university system trustees to reconsider dumping the physics major at USM.

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Faculty Support for Physics at USM Listen
 Duration:
3:46

Flat funding from Augusta, declining student enrollment and the sluggish economy are forcing campuses statewide to reconsider degree programs with fewer than five graduates a year. USM leaders said no final decision has been made on the physics major. Faculty said its elimination would contradict a statewide push for more, high-quality science, technology, engineering and math based education.

One night last week, Hank Tracy, who chairs USM's Chemistry Department, met after work with some current and former executives from Maine-based technology and manufacturing firms. They're part of an advisory group that gets together quarterly to talk about what's going on at the university's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

"They were, I think, outraged is a correct response, that our administration could think of doing this," said Tracy.

These executives, Tracy said, worry that a USM proposal to eliminate the physics major would cut down on the pool of qualified candidates, applying to work at their companies.

"There was talk of forming a swat team to lobby legislators so that this does not happen," he said.

There are currently 18 physics majors at USM. Under the university's plan, all of them would be allowed to finish the program, but the department has been told to stop enrolling new majors for now. Theodora Kalikow is USM's President.

"When you have tuition that's flat, appropriation that's flat and the numbers of students going down, that's the perfect storm," Kalikow said.

This "perfect storm" caused University of Maine system trustees to approve the so-called 5-12 plan. For three years, Sam Collins said university officials have been researching which degrees have five or fewer majors and which courses have 12 or fewer students. Collins chairs the UMaine board.

"It's difficult. This a process where we take a look at all our expenses, whether it be on the academic side of the house or administrative side," said Collins.

So far, a dozen majors have been eliminated or put on hold systemwide. The trend is hardly unique to Maine. Back in March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, put out a report looking at higher education cuts. Since the start of the recession, public university systems in California and Louisiana have eliminated more than 180 and 217 academic programs respectively. Theodora Kalikow is quick to note that eliminating the physics major at USM is not a done deal. Faculty have until the spring to weigh in on the proposal. Even If it goes through, Kalikow said USM will still offer some physics courses.

"We're certainly not getting rid of the basic physics courses," she said. "We hope to prepare more students through the basic physics courses and other courses to be able to go out and have a careers in the industries we want keep in Maine and attract to Maine."

But Kalikow's assurances don't sit well with Gerry Lasala, chair of USM's physics department, who said the university's proposal is at odds with the push statewide to turnout more students with sophisticated STEM skills.

"Engineering relies heavily on physics. And the credibility of the university as an institution that is serious about STEM is seriously hampered by considering eliminating this fundamental science course."

If the physics major were to be eliminated, LaSala said it will be impossible for the university to recruit highly skilled, Ph.D level physicists. And that, he said, will hurt the quality of the teaching in the entry level courses that remain and the relationship of those courses to the remaining science and engineering curriculum.

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