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Texas’ Decision to Close Physics Programs Jeopardizes Nation’s Future September 14, 2011

Posted by admin in : Health Physics (HEA), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Medical Physics (MED), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , trackback Bookmark and Share
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) has to varying degrees cut 60% of the undergraduate physics programs in State. This includes both programs at its two largest Historically Black Institutions, Texas Southern University (TSU) and Prairie View A & M University (PVAMU). Although all these institutions have the right to appeal the State’s decision, the dramatic nature of these and other actions strongly suggest that short-term politics, not good science education planning or sound economic policy, is motivating their actions.
In 2009 Texas state schools produced 162 B.A./B.S. degrees in physics (and another 38 by its private schools).  But Texas produces 50% fewer B.S. physics degrees, per capita, than California.  Closing physics programs would therefore seem to be a step in the wrong direction.
The State of Texas is leading the country down an abysmal path.  If all the other states were to adopt Texas’ approach, which the State of Florida is already considering, 526 of the roughly 760 physics departments in the US would be shuttered.  All but 2 of the 34 HBCU physics programs would be closed.  A third of underrepresented minorities and women studying physics would have their programs eliminated.  Physics training would be increasingly concentrated in larger elite universities with very adverse effects on the future scientific workforce.
College physics programs are the incubators of content-driven K-12 physics teachers that sow the seed-corn of future Texas innovators.  Physics graduates are direct contributors to economic prosperity.  Even at the BS level a physics degree leads to high-paying jobs that fire the engines of innovation.
Texas universities, including the flagship schools, have been unable to produce their fair share of African American B.S. physics graduates; producing at least 75% fewer African American baccalaureate degree recipients than they should (5 vs 20).  This number will become even worse once the physics programs at TSU and PVAMU disappear.
In October 2000 the THECB adopted the “Closing the Gaps” plan with strong support from the state's educational, business and political communities. The plan is directed at closing educational gaps in Texas as well as between Texas and other states. It has four goals: to close the gaps in student participation, student success, excellence and research.  This plan with respect to physics is being betrayed by the elimination of the two physics programs at the two leading state HBCUs, particularly when one of them, TSU, has started to make significant gains in all four directions.
The TSU physics program was created in 2004 through the separation of physics from the computer science department.  In 2005 its new chair was hired.  He revamped the program, replacing the old faculty with research driven faculty of national/international standing, representing some of the top universities in the world.
A new curriculum, with workforce relevant physics tracks (including in health physics), was approved by the THECB in 2008. Since 2007, approximately $1,000,000 dollars was leveraged through the Office of Naval Research and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in support of the current health physics program.  Another $1,000,000 has been raised through federally-funded, and state-supported, research grants (NSF, NASA, DOD, Welch Foundation).  On September 1, 2011, TSU won its first $5,000,000 NSF CREST Center grant.
TSU Physics has the only health physics program in the greater Houston area.  Health physicists are particularly needed in a city known for its Texas Medical Center complex, one of the world’s largest collection of medical research, diagnostic, and treatment centers.  By 2012, five of TSU’s seven graduates will have pursued the health physics track.  According to salary data from the Health Physics Society, certified B.S. health physicists can expect salaries of $106,000.
TSU-Physics produced its first two students in May 2010, representing 40% the total African American physics B.S. degree recipients in TX.  State records show that for each of the last six years, the overall production of B.S. degrees in Physics, awarded to Blacks, by State schools, has been no more than five (5).  In May 2010, TSU produced 40% of these, with both graduates eventually going on to graduate studies at the University of Houston (UH). One is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in environmental engineering; the other is taking graduate physics courses.  
By May 2012, TSU-Physics will have produced four new B.S. graduates, two of them African American.  By May 2013 it will produce six more (five of them African American).  The State of Texas considers any undergraduate program that can produce five graduates per year as programs performing at State expectations. Thus, clearly, TSU will be in compliance within the next two years.
The principal critique by the THECB for cutting TSU-Physics is that there are too many low enrollment (i.e. less than ten students) upper level classes. As part of its appeal to the THECB, TSU-Physics was prepared to join the Texas Electronic Coalition for Physics, primarily involving small physics programs within the Texas A & M University system. Programs such as that at Tarelton State University (i.e. Texas A & M – Central Texas), the lead institution within the Consortium, pool their students with the other consortium members and teach common upper level courses through videoconferencing resources.
Georgia’s Atlanta University Center, comprised of Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University, have historically contributed to the Georgia Institute of Technology performance as one of country’s top producers of Black engineers, by feeding them well prepared African American students.  This is a model that can be realized in Texas via Texas Electronic Coalition for Physics. 
However, the THECB also cut these programs. They will only allow this consortium to stay, supposedly, provided only one institution awards the B.S. Physics degree. Clearly the THECB has no appreciation of the importance of mentoring physics majors, and the importance of some sense of ownership in the physics program by students and faculty. Without formal B.S. degrees at each institution, it is difficult for departments to receive grants, etc., thus precipitating a systematic demise of any such physics effort.
Altogether the THECB decision is short-sighted and abandons tax-payer investments already made.  In the case of TSU-Physics these investments have already paid off, and the program is the verge of meeting the key THECB enrollment metric.  The THECB decision jeopardizes Texas’ overall economic prosperity and African American participation in it specifically.  And if the Texas model spreads to other states, the nation’s security will surely be put at risk.
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