September 13, 2013

USM says physics major is underused, will be cut

The decision to cut the physics major shocked students and prompted professors to vow a fight.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The University of Southern Maine plans to stop offering degrees in physics because of low enrollment, and the school's president said Thursday that other programs could follow.

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Edward Gleason, manager of the Southworth Planetarium at USM, talks about the possible elimination of the physics major at the university on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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University of Southern Maine physics students work on physics problems Thursday, Sept. 13, 2013 as physics professor Paul Nakroshis, second from left, helps Ramses Damayo, left, a junior at USM. The university is eliminating the physics major because of under-utilization. Other physics majors are junior Deb Hilton, second from right, and senior Trevor Hamer, right.

The decision to cut the physics major shocked students and prompted professors to vow a fight.

"You can't call yourself a university if you eliminate something as basic as physics," said associate physics professor Paul Nakroshis. "It's not over."

On Wednesday, Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Michael Stevenson told Nakroshis and department Chairman Jerry LaSala to suspend enrollment of new physics majors immediately and form a plan to dissolve the major, incorporating the staff and classes into other departments.

Eighteen students are now in the program, which generally graduates three or four a year. They will be allowed to finish.

The department has four professors, one of whom plans to retire in 2014.

Introductory physics courses, which students need for many other science degree programs, will continue. But USM will stop offering upper-level courses, about four a year, that are required for the physics degree but regularly have only five or six students.

Stevenson also said in a memo to department heads that the popular Southworth Planetarium, part of the physics department, could be closed. The planetarium, which is the only one in southern Maine, attracts more than 17,000 people a year for a variety of programs.

University officials said Thursday that they intend to keep it open, but Stevenson told the physics department "to develop a plan for its use ... or recommend its closure."

Stevenson was not available for comment Thursday.


Ending the physics major is simply a financial decision, said USM President Theodora Kalikow, because the upper-level courses consistently have fewer than 12 students, a baseline for enrollment.

"The financial situation and the academic situation at this campus needs to be addressed," Kalikow said.

"(Physics) is not the only program we are looking at," she said. "It's their turn. There are other programs in different areas, and it will be their turn, too."

Kalikow would not say what other programs, or how many other programs, are being considered for elimination.

"We have to stop doing many things that are unproductive," she said.


Many students heard about the university's plan Thursday morning.

"Walking around out there, you can tell which ones have heard the news. They all look like they're in mourning," said assistant physics professor Julie Ziffer, motioning toward the hallways outside the physics department offices. "They look shocked."

A handful of physics students who were doing homework between classes said they couldn't believe the school would make such a move.

"This is so bad," said junior Ramses Tamayo, looking up from pages of handwritten formulas scattered on a lab table in front of him. Across the table, senior Trevor Hamer agreed.

"Isaac Newton would be rolling in his grave," Hamer said. "I think it's ridiculous."

Nakroshis said he plans to get the Faculty Senate involved and make a case to keep the major, which was created in 1987.

"Don't worry," Nakroshis told the students. "I'm not going to let it go down without a fight."

Nakroshis, who has taught at USM for 16 years, said he has never before had upper-level physics courses cut because of low enrollment.

Besides hurting USM's ability to attract top instructors and students, cutting the major doesn't make sense because the department, on average, has large classes and makes money, he said. Introductory physics courses regularly have more than 100 students.

"There's no financial argument," said Nakroshis, who did a comprehensive review of the department in 2012, when he served as its chair.

(Continued on page 2)

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