Physics as a Luxury

Texas higher education reforms have generated a lot of controversy in the last few years. Recently Governor Rick Perry, spurred on by his friends at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, proposed some new changes to higher education. Higher education needs more government oversight. It should be run more like a business. Some education reformers have praised this oversight initiative. Education Sector’s Kevin Carey argued recently in the New Republic that,

The left has bought into a false narrative holding that American colleges and universities need nothing more than increased funding and freedom from public scrutiny. That means that the only policymakers with the will to pursue authentic higher education reform are people like Rick Perry.

The oversight reforms, therefore, seem to make some degree of sense. But past oversight efforts by Texas government are resulting in some unfortunate consequences. Texas now plans to eliminate about half of its undergraduate physics programs. According to a United Press International article:

Texas says it will go ahead with plans to phase out some university undergraduate physics programs unless they improve their graduation rates. The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board said nearly half of the 24 undergraduate physics programs at state-funded universities could be closed if they fail to graduate at least 25 students every five years, an article in the journal Nature reported.

“Until now, most faculty members thought their role was to do research and teach courses they were assigned,” Michael Marder, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “Now, researchers at institutions in Texas are going to have to take responsibility for students graduating successfully.”

The idea of this 25-over-5-years rule is to eliminate poorly-run programs. If no one graduates, so the thinking goes, this is sort of a waste and not worth doing. The administrators are probably incompetent, and possibly corrupt, so let’s just get rid of all this waste.

The problem is that physics is, well, hard. And lots of people fail it. All the time. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Furthermore, this is not like eliminating a graduate program in human resource management; maintaining an undergraduate physics program is a pretty essential part of just being a liberal arts university.

The American Physical Society apparently met with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to try and get the board to grant an exception. The board said no.

Raymund Paredes, the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, said he won’t be granting exemptions: “In this budgetary environment, we can’t afford the luxury of programs not producing graduates.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer