U. of Southern Maine is latest institution to consider closing its physics department due to a combination of tight money and low major numbers.

Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed reports on this trend, and what it may mean for the future of American physics.

If physicists ask some of the biggest possible questions about the nature of the universe, can a university exist without a physics department? A growing number of institutions think so, either cutting or combining programs. Citing budget concerns and low numbers of majors, the University of Southern Maine is the latest institution to consider eliminating its physics major.

Some proponents of the discipline say it’s a shortsighted move, and, like similar initiatives in other states, could contribute to the country’s dearth of qualified candidates for science-related jobs. The value of physics – a “foundational” science – isn’t tied to enrollment alone, they say.

Yet some of those proponents – along with critics – also say anger about department closures should be directed inward. Physicists need to address longstanding concerns about diversity within their ranks and better communicate the value of the discipline to the general public, they say. Better teaching and mentoring also could capture more student interest.

“It’s a mistake,” said Paul Nakroshis, an associate professor of physics at Southern Maine who has been involved in university discussions about cutting physics. Not only is it an essential part of a “comprehensive” university, physics is “excellent training for almost any scientific career because of its breadth. It spreads over many areas of technology, math and science.”

Without a physics major – and the upper-level courses that come with it – quality of study would decline, diminishing the university’s ability to attract talented students and faculty interested in physics and possibly science in general, and that’s bad for everyone, Nakroshis said. “Already in this country there are some pretty grim statistics in terms of how many people think the world is 6,000 years old and about [the validity of] global warming.”

But administrators, who instituted a “rule of five” several years ago to justify the closure of other departments graduating fewer than five majors annually, including Russian and German, say that physics simply isn’t attracting enough students. In a draft “action plan” presented last month, the university told the department – which graduates about three majors annually – to stop admitting new majors immediately; advise current majors on completing their course of study “as quickly as possible;” and to think about reorganizing itself into a new kind of science unit with “at least 20 faculty members” and some different focus by the end of this academic year.

The “necessity” of all physics courses will be assessed by the department and an outside curriculum developer, according to the plan. But lower-level courses will continue to be offered for students who need them to complete other majors, such as engineering. Students interested in majoring in physics can do so at the University of Maine at Orono, the state’s flagship institution, about three hours away.