Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dying Departments

With the downtick in the general welfare, universities and colleges have been trolling for deadwood. The axe has been falling on classics, philosophy, modern languages and such, which, of course, classicists, philosophers and modern language folk think destroys the thinking part of the academy. The general criterion is that there are few majors and there are very few.

Ben Hale, one of Ethon's favorite Boulderites, and an ethicist, is, as you can imagine, not pleased, and points to this piece of deception as a brilliant reply. Everyone is entitled to their mistakes.

However, as usual, this is not the point. Anyone who follows these things realizes that physics department have been undergoing the same trimming for decades now, driven by the decline in majors and the huge costs of maintaining a laboratory science program for the few left. The job bust in physics which started in the early 1970s has not helped. Chemistry at least has a chance of surviving because it has two major general education course, and biology, well, biology has pre-meds, lord bless their very little souls, but increasingly chemistry and physics departments are being shoved together, and there are very weird combinations as well as catchalls such as natural sciences, physical sciences, and so forth.

APS News writes:

Because of shortfalls in revenue, state boards of education have been forced to scrutinize the academic programs offered at schools and universities under their purview.” The result is that universities have had to make significant budget cuts,” said Theodore Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity. “Physics is almost always on the chopping block because of the small number of majors at these smaller schools.”

Universities have had to take a hard look at enrollment in their offered courses, and often they’ve scaled back the physics programs, either by cutting certain physics-related majors, or physics majors themselves.

Hit hardest by state cuts is the Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which dropped eight degree programs including its physics major, its chemistry major, its physics education major and chemistry education major.

“They’ve terminated both physics and chemistry, along with a couple of other programs at the end of the spring semester,” said Paul Withey, the head of the physics and chemistry department,

All the full-time positions will be cut, and the school plans on hiring instructors to teach the basic and service courses. Tenure has been revoked for professors in the affected departments. The university offered instructor positions to the formerly tenured faculty at a significant pay cut, but those affected have shown little interest in the offer.

“It took us all by surprise that not only would all the programs be eliminated, but also all the faculty,” Withey said “Physics is such a fundamental science, and it applies to all the other sciences and engineering. It doesn’t make sense for a university to completely eliminate the degree.”

Missouri has also had to cut out the physics major at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, MO.

“The governor of Missouri ordered a program review of all campuses in the state of Missouri system and said he’d consider eliminating all programs that graduate less than ten students a year,” said John Shaw, an associate professor of theoretical physics at Northwest Missouri State. “At Northwest they have eliminated a number of programs, of which the physics program was one.” The physics program at Northwest Missouri State graduated on average between one and two undergraduate majors.

“It was primarily because of low graduation rates in those areas,” said Douglas Dunham, Provost of the university. “It was hard to argue at the state level over the last four years that it was a program we should keep.”
Most colleges and universities only need a small number of people to teach the introductory/survey courses in any subject. On the other hand, departments at R1s or the equivalent in other lands, often have more faculty than majors. How can this be. Soft money, lots of positions supported by research grants, which, in turn support graduate students, who become post-docs and then get soft money positions. This model has worked for sixty years, but it may not work very well in the future. It is inherently unstable.


David B. Benson said...

Need to keep the ethics profs for all those pre-law students.
Maybe for the pre-meds as well?

Anonymous said...

Radioactive monster mouse has a shameless plug for his alma mater

Try for a degree at a highly ranked chemistry department in a liberal arts college at a midwestern university, and if you pass quantum mechanics during your junior year, you are pretty much guaranteed a scholarship for you last year. But you have to teach.

Anonymous said...

What is an R1s (my eyes and your font may not ne getting along..)--soeme tier one post-secondary designation? Inquiring minds want to know...

EliRabett said...

R1s are research universities in still common parlance. It's actually outdated, as the Carneigie rankings have changed


BillD said...

I don't know of any biology or premed university programs that don't require physics and chemistry. I'm not sure about geology requirements, but I would assume that biology and geology would also need to be eliminated if physics and/or chemistry got the ax. This should certainly cut down on math classes. Cutting out science should eliminate the need for most math classes beyond algebra, assuming that most colleges require that they students pass some kind of baisc math class. Fortunately, eliminating science and math is not a trend that goes beyond a few small, weak schools (?)

John Mashey said...

Eli said:
"Most colleges and universities only need a small number of people to teach the introductory/survey courses in any subject."

Maybe you can calibrate for me: how many physics and chemistry course do biology or pre-med students take? I've often observed cases where there is tension between the introductory courses taught for majors or non-majors. As I understand it, from UK academic friends, there have been cutbacks in physics departments there as well.

But realistically, despite my sympathy for broad learning, and having been a Physics/Math major for most of my undergrad days, realistically, departments cannot expect to go on forever just because they have been around forever. Likewise, there really is a critical-mass issue.

BTW, as a related issue, I recommend Myra Strober's Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, or you read the article at Communicating Across the Academic Divide, in CHE.

Interdisciplinary turfs are often where the action should be, but these discuss some of the impediments in academe, especially across {humanities, social sciences, other sciences.}

EliRabett said...

Pre-med/dentistry/pharmacy only requires non-calculus physics (an oxymoron if there ever was one, but what the hell). They also take 2 semesters of gchem and two of organic. The lectures can be taught by one person in a large lecture hall. The labs can only handle 20 students at a time for safety reasons (less for organic).

The reason biology has a lot of pre majors is

1) the math requirement is maybe a semester of calculus
2) see 1

EliRabett said...

Geology is only required for geology majors and jocks (as in rocks for jocks, a course for athletes.

BTW, Bill don't kid yourself physics departments are disappearing as self standing departments at many comprehensive universities (those without research doctoral programs, but a bunch of masters programs) which educated a huge number of students.

In the UK, Eli is aware of at least one good physics program which folded, Reading.

S Molnar said...

On a related note, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/grim-threat-british-universities/

John Mashey said...

Geology: I interpreted BillD's issue was that:
(physics+chemistry) => geology

Therefore, if p+c disappeared, so would geology. (?)

Physics at my old alma mater PSU is doing fine,
but Stanford President John Hennessy (a computer scientist) says this century = biology in the way last century was physics.

(Of course, he also says that since ~1950, computer science has been big, and we're not done yet ... of course, he recently said (at SHS memorial) that any department with science in its name probably wasn't one :-)) But, he does believe Bio is big, especially with interdisciplinary style, hence Bio-X.

Horatio Algeranon said...

"Need to keep the ethics profs for all those pre-law students.
Maybe for the pre-meds as well? "

...and for all the business majors (eg, George W. Bush, a Harvard MBA).

Then again, how likely is it that a college course (or two) in ethics will actually change/discourage dishonest habits (cheating, plagiarism, etc) that developed over the first 2 decades of life? (and in some cases actually got these people into college to begin with)

Pangolin said...

Hey wait. There's no mention of universities cutting economics majors?

If the last ten years haven't proved that university economics departments have about as much real world relevance as departments of phrenology and astrology would what exactly could do the trick? Another cheerful announcement of "jobless-recovery?"

Reverse phrenology treatments for university boards all around!

Anonymous said...

A non-mouse says:

The problem is that relevancy is determined by the irrelevant. Spreadsheets are great, but in the hands of those ignorant of their own ignorance they become dangerous. A simple click on 'rank' can turn reams of dubious quantifications into something that looks important.

Eli's humanities retread friend suggests 'town hall' meetings of faculty. We tried august faculty committees preparing voluminous reports on department/discipline productivity. The result was engineers declaring Physics and Math hopelessly arcane and impractical, philosophers declaring that Philosophy can teach about everything up to and including quantum electrodynamics, etc. I don't recall anyone discovering the lack of importance of his or her chosen discipline, rather it most resembled a circular firing squad.

We must, through some suitably credentialed and dispassionate academic body, come up with meaningful ways of determining relevancy that can be seamlessly inserted into an administrator's copy of Excel. Hide the equations, however, no point in needlessly frightening our fearless leaders.

EliRabett said...

non, about the only way this works is to tell the august committee that they have to recommend cutting X positions, e.g. the administration sets the goal relative to a fixed budget but lets the faculty chop. If the faculty says it will not chop, the administration tells them that it has its own list based on the following criteria without showing the list. Management 101

EliRabett said...

To S. Molnar: What is happening in Britain is an obvious outcome of the Thatcher program that transformed the comprehensives into universities. While the folk at the comprehensives thought that would allow them to do research, very few were/are competitive. The second step, which again, Eli spotted, although very few of his friends did, was that the departments were going to be ranked, and the bottom of the table was going to get its throat cut. Clearly the new universities were going to dominate the bottom, but equally clearly, by positioning the cut off line, a bunch of the red bricks were going to get the chop....Foresight and all that.

Ted Kirkpatrick said...

Tenure rules also force cuts to be done this way, at least in many North American schools. Faculty contracts typically prevent administrators from releasing a specific tenured professor due to budgetary pressures. Instead, admins are only allowed to shut down entire departments or programs. So instead of getting rid of the weakest X% profs across the board, the admins can only chop entire departments, firing good and weak faculty alike

John Mashey said...

Of course, the same thing happens in business, although shifting people around is a lot easier, and doesn't even take a general budget cut. As I mentioned in R2-D2, "progressive commitment" implies that one terminate projects.

If one needs to do a 5% cut in staff level:
a) One might cut 5% in every organization.
b) one might cut the lowest-ranked 5%, if there is such a rank.
c) One might do some of a+b), but get much of the 5% by cutting whole projects (departments).

Usually, a strong component of c) is a good idea, because a) really risks damaging leanly-run strong groups, and b) can be hard to implement (for reasons Ted notes, and because it can be quite hard to get sane performance rankings across big organizations).

Some of the industry dynamics are similar to university, but as usual, the higher velocity means the effects happen faster. (Having worked for VP&GM's or CEOs in different companies, I've been through a lot of exercises like this. They are never fun. In a lot of cases, something is just the wrong size, and either need to get bigger to get critical mass, or be eliminated as a separate entity.)