Friday, June 17, 2011

End of physics degree at Tennessee State University

Well, I suppose this is the smart thing to do and it does affect other programs.

"TSU's dumping of physics degree came down to numbers"

Program graduated only 23 in 10 years


Jennifer Brooks

June 17th, 2011

For Tennessee State University, it came down to one question: Should a school with so few physics majors that some classes consist of a professor and a single student continue to offer a degree in physics?

Yes, say TSU’s professors and physics majors. The university has graduated just 23 physics majors over the course of the past decade, but they spent their time accomplishing amazing things — manipulating nanoparticles and mapping Nashville’s radon pockets and searching the skies for undiscovered planets.

TSU, they argue, has been a reliable producer of undergraduate physics majors, particularly women and minorities, in a state that needs hard science graduates.

But there was the other side of the equation. A 2008 report commissioned by the university said it had too many degree programs that put too few students in the seats, and the whole institution was suffering as a result. For the university’s new administration, the answer was doing away with programs with the fewest graduates.

“Right now, we’ve got a physics class being taught to one student,” said TSU Provost Dennis Gendron, who is overseeing the painful process of pruning TSU’s lowest-producing degree programs. “How many resources do you allocate to courses like that?”

Current physics majors will still earn their degrees, and the physics faculty will continue to teach, but their department will be wrapped into a new hybrid mathematics-and-science degree program within the College of Engineering next semester.

“Students vote with their money and with enrollment on the programs they want,” Gendron said. “We’ve got to reallocate our resources.”

TSU offers 67 majors, 26 of which are considered low-producing degree programs that have graduated five or fewer students over the past three years.

In April, TSU announced it was eliminating more than half a dozen degree programs, including undergraduate degrees in physics, Africana studies and foreign languages, and the master’s programs in English and mathematics. The remaining programs on the low-producing list — majors such as history, art, chemistry, music and civil engineering — are under review and may not survive.

“We had 67 choices (for majors at TSU). Now we have 61,” Gendron said. “By the end of next year, we would hope to have fewer than that.”

Cutting the lowest-producing programs saved the university $400,000, by Gendron’s estimate. That money, he said, will be redistributed to departments such as nursing, where demand is so high the university has to turn applicants away because of lack of space.

Small consolation

But the spreadsheet logic of the curriculum changes is small consolation to TSU’s physicists. Or its mathematicians. Or the professors of Africana studies. Or to the students who came to TSU to earn those degrees.

Jasmine Parham will be one of the last physics majors ever to graduate from TSU. The senior is taking a course this summer in which, yes, she’s the only student in the class.

“It’s very, very challenging,” she said, to go through a program with an almost nonexistent peer group.

Parham still wasn’t happy about the announcement that the physics program is being wrapped into an umbrella math-and-science hybrid degree within the College of Engineering.

“It kind of made me sad,” said Parham, who came to TSU to study engineering but was lured away by the close-knit physics department, where she has focused her research on nuclear physics.

“They will give you every single resource you need, whether it’s research or help with homework,” she said. “I just want everyone to know that this is a great school to be a part of.”

Professor Orville Bignall, coordinator of TSU’s physics program, is adapting to his new place in a multi-disciplinary mathematics department, within TSU’s College of Engineering.

“TSU has been one of the major pipelines for minority and women physicists,” he said. “But we will continue. ... It’s one of those things where tough times call for innovation.”

No loss of faculty

The loss of the physics major didn’t mean the loss of any of the physics faculty. Incoming students with an interest in physics will be steered into TSU’s mathematical sciences major. Mathematical sciences will be an umbrella degree designed to pull students with similar majors — physics, astrophysics, mathematics, actuarial sciences — into a degree that will allow the school to consolidate as many general classes as possible.

“Mathematics and physics majors take 80 percent of the same courses,” said professor Sandra Scheick, head of the current mathematics and physics department.

Instead of two or three physics majors and 10 or so math majors, and maybe one astronomy major every other year or so, Scheick said, there will be two dozen mathematical science majors.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission keeps a running tally of the graduates produced by every degree program at every public institution in the state. Those that produce only a handful of graduates are classified as “low producing.” Last winter, that tally counted 214 low-producing programs statewide, 22 of which were terminated by the schools.

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