The president and provost presented a new ‘direction package’ for USM last month. These are my concerns with what they said.
1. Calling physics a “low enrollment department”
The administration keeps making this claim as if saying it often enough will make it true. The claim that the USM physics major is “low enrollment,” or that Maine students aren’t “choosing” physics, is a complete fabrication.
USM graduates a number of physics students compared to the national average for undergraduate departments. The only thing these departments fail to do is satisfy the arbitrarily chosen “rule of 5” – a rule that, when scaled up, suggests the “disestablishment” of over 60 percent of the physics departments in the U.S. This is completely indefensible.
2. Regarding this idea of an “exciting” new science program which will “draw in students”
It’s pretty clear they’re talking about consolidating existing departments into some kind of blended degree program. Here’s the problem: blended programs aren’t really STEM degrees. In programs like these, students take a handful of classes from a number of disciplines, never specialize in anything, and therefore, don’t come out qualified to actually pursue STEM careers. In science, one must specialize. The minimum level of knowledge required to pursue upper level work any particular field is more than enough to fill a bachelor’s degree.
There’s already a general sciences degree on this campus, and its scope is pretty clear; it states its objective to “[serve] students with a strong interest in teaching middle school.” But, unlike USM’s current physics and chemistry departments, it does not get students into hard science graduate programs, nor do these blended science degrees produce graduates that are competitive in technical, industrial fields. A bachelor’s level physicist or chemist can go out into the workforce and fill a job normally associated with engineers. Students with blended science degrees are simply not competitive in these STEM fields. It’s not what such degrees are for.
Attempting to pass off one of these blended science programs as a true STEM degree is a “degree mill” tactic. Such programs exploit starry-eyed freshmen who want to study science and who won’t understand until they’re about to graduate that the degree they paid so much for does not prepare them to compete with STEM students from more specialized, traditional programs. This university and this community deserve better than this. For USM’s administration to endorse such a program indicates that they’re either being disingenuous or that they simply do not understand the demands of STEM careers.
3. The rote response of, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not getting rid of physics, we’ll still be teaching physics to other disciplines which require them’
This means that they intend to offer 100 level classes as needed for USM’s rather substantial engineering and biology programs. If this administration truly believes that this will not erode the quality of science education at this institution they are thoroughly deluded. Every student who’s ever taken physics, calculus or chemistry at a local community college only to experience a good intellectual bruising at USM knows exactly what the difference is between a course supported by a passionate and engaged department and a course that exists only to maintain some minimum core requirement.
It is likely that the current faculty will not be thrilled about spending their careers teaching intro-level classes and will seek other opportunities – at which point this institution will be hard pressed to attract quality replacements. When the sciences falter in this way, USM will be producing sub-par, noncompetitive engineers, and when engineering loses its integrity, so does the university.
This controversy is causing lasting damage to the institution and to the function of this university in society demands that it not destroy its science programs. Beyond that, as several faculty and students repeated time and again at the Direction Package presentation, a public university is not a business. Furthermore, cutting STEM disciplines certainly will not draw in new students, and offering low quality alternatives is unethical, does not solve the problem and will likely hurt other important departments in the future.
Derick Arel is a senior physics major.