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WSU may eliminate its physics department

Physics as a department and as a degree major has been proposed for elimination at Wichita State University. The chief reason: lack of interest.

Provost Gary Miller has recommended ending physics as a degree program to president Don Beggs, not because of the huge budget cuts WSU has had to do, but because the graduates in any recent year could be counted on one hand.

Faculty and students will have a chance to voice their opinions, but the final decision is up to Beggs.

Some supporters have already weighed in, using the words "stupid," "destructive," and "incomprehensible."

Miller and other officials emphasized that physics is important.

"Nobody's talking about not teaching physics here," said associate provost Keith Pickus. "Physics would still be taught but would be reorganized."

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 about 3 graduates.

In contrast, in this town based so much on aviation, 392 students at WSU currently major in aerospace engineering; 43 will graduate from the fall and spring semesters, university officials said.

But supporters of the physics department say 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 The department chairman, professor Nick Solomey, said Miller's numbers are way out of date in that February study, and that Miller's proposal is destructive.

All the problems Miller cites did exist two years ago, Solomey said, when he was hired by the administration to revive the department. But he did revive it, he said; there are now 38 majors, and eight students graduating; there will be larger numbers in the year to come. The problem is well on it's way to being solved; the numbers trend is up, test scores are up, he said.

WSU physics graduate Thayne Currie, (class of 2002), an astrophysicist now hunting planets outside the solar system for NASA, said ending the physics department and degree program would undercut WSU's reputation among engineers and other engineering schools. Physics, he said, 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. Eliminating it as a degree program, demoting it to become merely a grouping of classes on the way to an engineering or other science degree, would damage the credibility of WSU science degrees, Currie said.

Candidates for teaching jobs at WSU "will be scandalized when they learn of this," WSU mathematics teacher Thalia Jeffres wrote the WSU liberal arts college dean.

Nathan Thompson, who will graduate from WSU with a physics degree this summer, said ending the department would be " stupid," and would put permanent question marks beside every engineering degree WSU produces in the future.

"What kind of university does not have a physics department?" Thompson said. "It would be unthinkable for a university to not have a mathematics department, but it is equally as unthinkable to do this."

He plans to get a masters in mathematics after graduating this summer, and then a Ph.D. in physics at some other university.

"But I'm really worried about what other universities will think when I apply there, and they find out that the university where I got my undergraduate degree in physics no longer even has a program."

He said Solomey revived the program, made it fun, recruited students.

Currie, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said eliminating the department would damage WSU's standing as a practical, real-world university that emphasizes jobs.

"I would agree that in universities there needs to be more of a focus on teaching fields that produce more tangible results," he said. "But that is an argument about why physics should be emphasized and not eliminated."

After he heard about WSU's proposal in recent weeks, he polled several NASA colleagues about what they thought about WSU's proposed elimination. WSU has a reputation for running a first-class engineering program, and Currie said most of his NASA colleagues are engineers.

"A lot of my colleagues said they (as prospective students) would not even bother to apply to a program that lacked a physics degree," he said. "They said they would not apply no matter how good the engineering program was."

Miller made it clear in his note to Beggs in March that he and others are not proposing this move lightly. The dean of liberal arts, the provost's office and a group that did an extensive review spent a long time studying the program. That review, completed in March 2008, found problems including problems with faculty relationships, low morale among students and faculty, and lack of focus in the research mission.

"The reviewers strongly recommend reorienting the physics research programs toward high priority research programs, particularly in engineering," Miller wrote.

But that criticism is out of date since Solomey took over two years ago, Currie said.

"I applaud the provost (Miller) for identifying a program that needs review, and for arguing that it needs a clearly stated path for success. But he's made the wrong diagnosis here. Eliminating it after it's been revitalized would be like taking a patient who went from critical to stable and tossing him into the street."

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