September 14, 2013

Our View: Cutting physics major wrong budget solution

Just because the classes are small doesn't mean that the program is unimportant.

Not everyone is cut out for upper-level physics courses. Intense study of the relationship between energy and matter requires a knowledge of calculus and a rarefied ability to engage in abstract thought.

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If USM finds it lacks a sufficient number of physics major to justify the program, maybe the answer should be to recruit more physics students, not eliminate the major.

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But just because not everyone can do it doesn't mean that no one should have a chance to.

Unfortunately, that may be what happens at the University of Southern Maine, which announced plans to eliminated its physics major because of a lack of interest.

The plan is one of a series of cuts that the university is making in response to belt tightening from Augusta, which has kept support flat even though costs are increasing.

Combined with the University of Maine System trustees' freeze on tuition increases -- the right thing to do in the interest of keeping higher education affordable for the largest number of Maine families -- flat funding means cutting.

But it's one thing to trim fat and another to cut into the meat and bones of a higher education system. As Paul Nakroshis, an associate physics professor at USM, said Thursday, "You can't call yourself a university if you eliminate something as basic as physics."

Not all programs with low enrollments are created equal, and applying the same strict standard to all subjects doesn't make sense.

Some classes are small because they're not interesting or they don't offer much that students find relevant. But some are small because they deal with challenging material. If those small classes are in an important discipline, a university should find a way to pay for it.

Physics is one of those important disciplines. The business community has sounded the alarm that we are not producing enough graduates in science and technology fields.

If USM finds it lacks a sufficient number of physics majors to justify the program, maybe the answer should be to recruit more physics students, not eliminate the major.

University of Southern Maine faculty say they are not going to accept this decision without a fight, and they are absolutely right. A university as big as USM should offer majors in the hard sciences.

Not every important program will draw a big crowd. The audience for "American Idol" is bigger than coverage of the U.S. Congress on CSPAN, but no one would suggest that we don't need to keep an eye on Congress.

The administrators should take another run at this problem. They have clearly come up with the wrong solution.

 

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