Saturday, December 7, 2013
BY NOEL K. GALLAGHER
"You can't call yourself a university if you eliminate something as basic as physics," Associate Physics Professor Paul Nakroshis said Thursday. "It's not over."
On Wednesday, Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Michael Stevenson met with Nakroshis and department Chairman Jerry LaSala and told them to suspend enrollment of new majors immediately and come up with a plan to dissolve the major, incorporating staff and classes into other departments.
Stevenson also said in a memo sent to department heads that the popular Southworth Planetarium, which is part of the physics department, could be closed.
Introductory physics courses, which are needed for many other science degree programs, will continue.
What no longer will be offered are upper-level courses, about four a year, that regularly only have five or six students in them but are necessary for a degree in physics. There are 18 students in the program, which generally graduates three or four students a year. The department has four professors, one of whom is retiring in 2014.
Southworth Planetarium, the only planetarium in southern Maine, attracts more than 17,000 students and community members every year for a variety of programs. University officials said Thursday they intend to keep it open, but Stevenson told the department in the draft plan to "to develop a plan for its use ... or recommend its closure."
Stevenson was not available for comment Thursday.
The next closest planetariums in Maine are at Bates College in Lewiston, the University of Maine in Orono, Maine Maritime Academy in Castine and Lee Academy.
USM President Theodora Kalikow said ending the physics major is simply a financial decision, because the upper-level courses consistently have fewer than 12 students, a baseline for minimum course attendance.
"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 declined to say what other programs, or how many other programs, are under review for possible elimination.
"We have to stop doing many things that are unproductive," she said.
Many students heard the news for the first time 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 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 laboratory 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 planned to get the Faculty Senate involved and make a case to keep the major, which was created in 1987.
"Don't worry," Nakroshis told them. "I'm not going to let it go down without a fight."
Aside from hurting the university's ability to attract top instructors and top students, cutting the major doesn't make sense since the department on average has a large class size and makes money, he said. The introductory physics courses regularly have more than 100 students in them.
"There's no financial argument," said Nakroshis, who did a comprehensive review of the department in 2012 when he served as chairman.
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