Thursday, September 15, 2011

State of Texas threatens physics departments at smaller public universities

This article is both sad and frustrating.  The coordinating body of the Texas state government that runs the public universities in this state has recommended that a number of places shut down their physics departments.   In particular, this affects two schools near Rice that are historically African American serving, Prairie View A and M and Texas Southern.   (Unfortunately, the article doesn't have a link to the actual Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommendations, so I don't have any further information, like which other universities here may be affected.)   

Depressingly updated:  see NY Times story here.

I understand that financial times are tight for the state.  (Look at the "Texas Miracle" in action as we slash the state's education budget.)  The bit that really galls me is the rationale:  enrollment in the upper division courses is small, so we should eliminate the whole department.  This idea that somehow the only valuable and cost effective courses are those with large enrollment is ridiculous, and it seems to have infected the public university system in this state, driven by misguided, bean-counting thinktank types.  If you follow this reasoning all the way, we should only have large service courses, and never have upper division, specialized courses in anything, and of course all of these should be taught by non-tenure-track, non-research-active instructors.  That would surely cut costs.  It would also be a disaster in the long run. As is stated in this article, if you used the same criteria in terms of size of upper division courses across the country, you'd end up shutting down 2/3 of the physics departments in the US, to say nothing of other disciplines.  I can't imagine the situation is any better in, e.g., math, or chemical engineering, or any technical discipline.  I'd also love to see numbers about how much collegiate athletics is net costing the state in public funds, vs. how much it costs to keep these programs going.  Hint: most universities lose money on athletics.

I'd love to try to fix this, but given the politics here (hint:  Rick Perry likes these policies, and his political party controls both houses of the state legislature), it's hard to see a workable path forward.  It's not like this is going to be an honest debate about how to structure the state's higher education system (which we can and should have) - it's an ideological full-court press.   

Think I'm exaggerating?  The superintendent of the THECB, Raymund Paredes, is a close buddy of both Rick Perry and his pal Rick O'Connell, the guy who thinks that a bachelor's degree even in a technical field should be obtainable for $10000 total, period.  You could do that, of course, but it would involve converting our colleges and universities essentially into community colleges or correspondence schools.  I've yet to see any evidence that these guys have an appreciation for science or engineering at all.  They want UT and TAMU to play good football, and they espouse populist rhetoric about wanting to cut costs, but they don't seem to want academic excellence at universities.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Doug,

And to think that I was starting to miss Texas! Ohio is full of all sorts of fun. Right now, we've got a

1) proposition coming up in November that would sharply curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees and would completely eliminate them for university faculty by rebranding us as managers. Yes, if this thing passes, I'll become an Assistant Manager of Physics. This will force me to put a sign on my office door indicating that I do not have access to the safe and that slushies are half-price.
2) A move to transition to charter universities in Ohio...
3) Our university is switching to a resource center mgt budgetary model which will make smaller departments budgetary targets like the physics departments in TX...

Thank goodness there's not a rising anti-science movement or I'd be really worried...

JasonD

Anonymous said...

But what is happening with the physics department at Rice? People are talking about a faculty position that has been filled four times now, only for the candidates to leave after a year or two.

Doug Natelson said...

Anon, that's not accurate, and if you want to discuss it in detail, email me or give me a call.

Anonymous said...

That is accurate. That is what people talk about.

CoolPhysics said...

My post on the subject: http://www.physics4thecool.com/2011/09/sadly-backwards-into-breech.html. I agree with you. I was starting to miss Texas, but am thankful its in my life's rearview mirror!

paul said...

Maine is attempting the same thing, except with ANY major that doesnt graduate more than 5 majors per year. Same criterion used in Texas - coincidence?