Last Thursday’s announcement that the physics department will be cut due to low enrollment maybe shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, especially after President Kalikow’s statement to the Free Press last week about how the faculty should be scared.
Last week’s article touched on the issue of drastic cuts to faculty research, travel and sabbatical funding, which seemed drastic enough — research is even in the dictionary as a defining characteristic of a university (check Merriam Webster). What’s more bizarre than a university without a foundation in research? You guessed it – an institution that calls itself a university without a physics department.
Currently, there are only two public universities in Maine that offer a major in physics, the University of Maine at Orono and USM. Beyond that, there are the pricier and more elite options of the Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges. USM has already made its move to phase out its physics department and is now investigating other under-enrolled departments and degree programs to potentially eliminate, which begs the question, how many departments can a university cut before it ceases to be a true “university?” And beyond that, the question that seems to be looming now is, what’s next?
The idea behind the cuts seems to be that low enrollment means low interest in physics, but there’s another way of looking at those numbers. Is there low enrollment in physics because USM students don’t want a physics department? This seems doubtful – in light of the outrage that cutting the major has caused, with faculty and students promising to fight the proposal. Could it be possible that students who want to study physics are choosing not to study at USM because of its deteriorating academic reputation? With the drastic rate at which whole departments are getting the axe, it’s hard not to understand why students are choosing other schools.
No one is saying that USM is cutting physics for the fun of it. There are budget shortfalls, especially in light of the tuition freeze, flat (but increasingly inadequate) state appropriation and consistently dropping enrollment rates locally and nationally. These problems do need to be addressed. The tuition freeze is designed to help students stay in school, which is incredibly important, but it’s also important to keep an eye on what school it’s helping students stay in. As it stands, USM is an affordable school that keeps getting chipped away at academically, both little by little and, in cases like this, in giant slabs.
There is also, of course, the fact that students don’t just pay for an education, we pay for the name on our diploma, and the university that just cut its physics department doesn’t sound so good. We understand the necessity to cut back under these financial pressures; however, we are concerned that this cut is both dramatic and ill-conceived. We cannot forget what should always be at the core of a university’s mission – the good of its students, and USM students, even though sometimes we might not openly embrace physics, need such basic and fundamental elements of a well-rounded education. It’s not too late to reconsider this decision, and we think it would be wise to do so. It’s not always quantity, but quality too, and a student to faculty ratio of 8 to 1 is nothing to be ashamed of.