Faculty members at Wichita State University say they can't imagine the embarrassment they will feel if WSU puts an end to its physics department and folds it into the engineering department.
The faculty senate voted 27-3 Monday to recommend to President Don Beggs that he not do that.
They said downgrading it would be "tragic and foolish." That it would be like having a business school without teaching economics in full. That it would be like having a university without fully teaching mathematics.
Beggs has a tough decision to make, though. Does he keep physics as it is, even though year after year the number of physics graduates can be counted on one hand?
Beggs will make that decision probably by July, said WSU provost Gary Miller, who recommended to Beggs that the program be downgraded. Miller showed up at the faculty debate and vote on Monday, and told the faculty that he appreciated their criticism and their ideas.
Physics is the root science to engineering and many other sciences; it is the study of matter and energy and their interactions; it is the basis for all the applied sciences.
Under a plan proposed to Beggs by Miller, physics would still be taught but would be reorganized by being merged with engineering.
Physics department supporters say that demoting physics from a major to a grouping of courses would damage WSU's national reputation. The department chairman, professor Nick Solomey, said Miller's proposal to downgrade is based on low enrollment numbers that are out of date, that the physics department has been revived. More freshmen and sophomores are signing up, he said on Monday.
Miller listened politely in the front row as Solomey, speaking to the faculty senate, made a presentation of the case for continuing. For one thing, Solomey said, WSU with a full physics department has a chance to take the lead in state efforts to become part of a $127 million effort to build the Auger scientific array to study cosmic rays, using devices spread out over thousands of miles of Kansas and Colorado.
That possibility has drawn the interest of Kansas Senate president Stephen Morris, who said on Monday that he plans to call Beggs and urge that WSU physics be kept intact as a department.
Beyond that, Solomey said in his presentation, "Without a physics department and major, we will lose the best students, lose big research money,... lose jobs for central Kansas and lose industry."
The faculty vote is not binding on Beggs, but Miller said he and Beggs welcome the discussion, especially if it leads to ideas on how to handle the problem. "This discussion is a good thing," Miller said.
Miller said in a proposal written to Beggs in March that the physics department in its last review, completed in February, was attracting only about 16 physics majors among juniors and seniors over five years, and had only about three graduates.