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By Michael Lucibella
As reported in the October APS News, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) informed seven universities that their physics programs would be terminated because they have not graduated enough physics majors over the last five years. However, in a new development, several of the schools are working with the state to keep their programs running in some capacity by participating in a consortium that broadcasts physics lectures.
In February, the THECB, which oversees Texas public universities, alerted all the schools in its system that undergraduate programs graduating fewer than an average of five students per year for the last five years were in danger of being shut down. All told, 545 degree programs, including twelve in physics, across 24 Texas public universities missed the required minimum. Some were placed on two-year probation, others were consolidated with other degrees, while some schools requested a temporary exemption to try to increase their enrollment. Seven physics programs put in for an exemption and were denied.
On October 27, the presidents of many of the schools with programs slated for closure presented their final appeal to the full THECB. However the board opted to shut down six of the physics programs. The seventh, at University of Texas Brownsville, opted to combine its physics major with the school’s engineering physics degree.
The move to shut down programs has been controversial. APS president Barry Barish released a letter to the THECB on behalf of the Society, criticizing the closures’ potential impact on the training of high school physics teachers in the state.
“Texas recently began requiring four full years of science and mathematics including a year of physics for all high school students–an exciting policy development we hope other states will adopt–there is an even greater need for qualified high school physics teachers,” the letter read. “Ironically, just as this legislation is coming into effect, the actions of the THECB to close physics programs will cripple the state’s ability to effectively prepare sufficient numbers of highly qualified physics instructors to meet the new requirements.”
The Texas Section of APS released a similar letter calling on the Board to reassess its plan to shut down programs. The letter went on to say that the Board’s decision would have a particularly adverse impact on several schools that have seen high rates of underrepresented minority student enrollment.
“The purpose is not so much about saving money, it’s about conserving resources and the quality of the program,” said Macgregor Stephenson, assistant commissioner for academic programs and research on the THECB.
Physics programs at Texas Southern University, Prairie View A&M University, Texas A&M University Kingsville, West Texas A&M University, Tarleton State University and Midwestern State University all fell short of the THECB’s requirement, and are slated to be phased out. However, the board did hold out the possibility that the schools may be able to still graduate physics majors by joining a consortium of universities pooling their physics programs.
“I think the Coordinating Board has a point: you’re not contributing a lot to the economy by producing one student a year… They understand the bottom line,” said Heather Galloway, director of the University Honors program at Texas State University San Marcos and a former member of the APS Executive Board. “They did seem to recognize that there is something to be said for physics. They took it upon themselves to start a coalition.”
In fact, the Texas Electronic Coalition for Physics was started in 2004 and is currently made up of five schools across the state. The consortium spreads teaching physics courses throughout the system by having a professor at one of the schools deliver a lecture, which is then broadcast live to the other schools in the system. Participating in the program are some of the smaller, more rural schools, often ones that also have higher enrollment rates of women and underrepresented minorities.
Stemming from the Board’s decision, two more schools have joined the coalition, Texas Southern and Texas A&M Commerce, which is on a two-year probation. Midwestern and Prairie View have also been invited to join.
“I guess it ended up not as bad as I thought it would be,” said Daniel Marble, an assistant professor at Tarleton State University, one of the coalition members. “[Members of the THECB] say they’re going to work with us and make it happen.”
The question of how to confer degrees to students in the consortium has been tricky. Students who earn a physics degree while participating in the consortium receive it from their home university. As a result, classes would be filled well beyond state minimum requirements, but on paper, each university would only have a small number of graduates. Members of the consortium and the THECB are working on a plan to evaluate the program based on the cumulative number of students in the program, rather than the number of students at each individual school.
“What they’re letting us do, in essence, is do what we thought we were doing already, which is to try to sum the graduates,” Marble said. “I don’t care what they call it; they could call it the degree from Mars, I only care about teaching my kids.”
The exact form that such a degree would take is not yet clear. Consortium administrators and members of the THECB held their first meeting on November 18 to start formulating a plan to put together a joint degree. Administrators have said that they hope to get a plan figured out soon so schools can know if they have a physics degree to offer students enrolling for fall of 2012.
There may still be another round of program shutdowns in the future. At the October meeting, several board members, including chair Fred Heldenfels, brought up the possibility of upping the minimum number of students required to graduate per year from five to eight.
“It’s certainly been on the mind of our board members,” Stephenson said. “Of states that have a statewide standard, we’re definitely at the most permissive end in terms of the number that we require.” He added that Louisiana’s requirement is a minimum of eight students graduating per year, Georgia’s minimum is ten, and Kentucky’s is twelve.
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