Thursday, December 12, 2013
The University of Southern Maine's consideration to cut the degree program in physics is not in the best interest of Maine's economy.
Students of the hard sciences play a big role in the state’s future.
A fundamental prerequisite for growth and commercialization in Maine's technology sectors is a workforce adept in critical science and math skills. Cutting the physics program is particularly disturbing, since it would create workforce deficiencies that would place Maine companies at a commercial disadvantage.
The Maine economy needs a strong technology cluster made up of firms and specialists that develop and design complex systems aligned with the needs of businesses and institutions.
Economic progress and productivity gains demand that Maine workers at all levels have high levels of skills and competencies to apply and make use of technology that is pervasive in Maine workplaces. The availability of a highly skilled and qualified workforce is critical to Maine's technology cluster.
Cutting USM's programming at this time would remove an important component of workforce development and signal that the university does not understand, or care about, the needs of Maine's businesses.
The fastest-growing businesses employ workers with advanced degrees. These are the companies capable of importing significant money into the state through the development of emerging and disruptive technologies.
The correlation between entrepreneurs and advanced degrees is clear from a National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics report. This report highlights Maine's disturbingly low percentage of doctoral degrees (5 percent in Maine versus 14 percent nationally) in science occupations.
As the fastest-growing businesses are predominantly found in vibrant metropolitan areas, it is clear that more attention needs to be given to strengthening existing programs and providing advanced degree opportunities at USM.
Instead of cutting science and math programs, USM should be ensuring that there are educational pathways for students to achieve advanced degrees.
I want to thank you for your excellent editorial in support of the physics bachelor of arts at the University of Southern Maine ("Our View: Cutting physics major wrong budget solution," Sept. 14).
As chair of the USM physics department, I want to make one important point at this time: Cutting the physics major is not a budget solution at all. The physics department is a revenue generator -- a profit center -- for USM.
Every year the physics department generates tuition and fees revenue in excess of expenses by more than $400,000, a number that has been increasing annually for the past two decades.
Although there are a small number of "low-enrollment" upper-level classes (typically three classes with enrollments of between three and 10 students each semester), the average class size in the department, including these small classes and labs capped at 16, is 30.5 students.
And even the small classes almost always generate more tuition revenue than the cost to offer them.
This information is verified in the program review of the physics department conducted by the USM Faculty Senate in 2012.
I'll leave to others or to a future letter a discussion of the value of the physics major, but it is important to make sure that all understand that physics is not losing money at USM.
I would like to respond to the Sept. 14 Portland Press Herald editorial: "Our View: Cutting physics major wrong budget solution."
I totally agree. Cutting hard science programs such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics is not the direction a university should be headed.
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