• Wesley Baucom

The Fight to keep Physics and Astronomy at UMSL

by Wesley Baucom, Editor-in-Chief

According to new suggestions put forward by the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s Academic Program Prioritization Committee (APP), there have been talks about potentially shutting down the Physics and Astronomy department, along with other programs. The report made by the APP says that the department has been very active in research, and there is “moderate” potential for job growth in the field, though apparently this isn‘t enough. The suggestion is to eliminate the major but retain the minor---while consolidating the department with mathematics---as they’re both “struggling,” as the report claims. There’s also potential collaboration with Missouri S&T, so that students can further their education with higher degrees in these fields within the University of Missouri (UM) system. This comes with many difficulties, and would have lasting effects for what seems to be short-term problems.

The Current first spoke with Eric Majzoub and Sonya Bahar, both Professors of Physics and Astronomy at UMSL. These suggestions, according to them, aren’t something that came out of nowhere---it’s a suspicion they’ve had for a long time, as they’ve been fighting to keep the department alive for years. Professor Majzoub recalls when he joined the program back in 2008, saying that “We had a reasonable number of faculty, it was a small department, but everything was functioning fine, otherwise I wouldn’t have joined the department.” There was plenty going on within the department. They had a hired lab technician to oversee lab research, a group of contractors who made equipment to conduct experiments, and more people to repair machines as needed---but all that changed in the 2008 financial crisis.

The budget cuts came, and they sliced deep. Physics and Astronomy began to lose what drew so many people to them in the first place. “When these cuts started in 2010, they started by slowly taking away resources that we had to do science on campus. Over the years, we’ve lost all of the equipment in the central facilities.” Professor Majzoub said. That’s not all either, a dire need for faculty became evident as well, and they lost the contractors that made conducting science possible. “We were losing faculty. People would retire or leave and we weren’t allowed to replace them with new faculty. And you know, if you can’t replace faculty in your department, that’s just a death sentence.”

The huge losses were major factors in reports to the department’s two, five-year reviews that came since that time. All departments at UMSL go through a review process every five years, in which a reviewer from another, similar sized school, writes up a report to give to administrators regarding talks with staff and research productivity. Professor Majzoub recalls the reports he was a part of, saying that “Both the reviewers said that the department is functioning well, but you can’t starve [Physics and Astronomy] of resources---you need to allow them to hire faculty so they can replace retirements.” In many ways the department wasn’t able to run at its highest gear---there was, and still is, many pieces missing that kept the engine going. The administration was still pushing the gas, and they were curious as to why nothing was moving. “We were told to do more with less,” Majzoub continued, “and now it’s at the point where there’s nothing left to cut other than closing the department.”

One of the biggest contributing factors is budget , as the school is trying to save money, while the department needs more funding. According to Professor Bahar, the numbers don’t seem to add up in the report made by the APP. “There’s been no financial analysis provided, and as far as we can see in the numbers, there’s no way that this would save us money, because what they propose is to combine physics faculty into the math department.” So, even cutting the department would still require faculty to be paid. All in all, the report doesn’t seem to provide any clear solution to the money issue---one of the glaring issues according to the Professors who see the department as being an integral part of the university’s programs.

There are many reasons to keep the department going . The student response was an uproar, and many sent panicked emails to Professor Bahar’s inbox. “[The APP] are still at the point of receiving input and our students have been very upset, our alumni have been very upset, and a lot of people have been writing in.” The response is something to be expected, as no student who is passionate about what they’re studying, would willingly want their field of study to go away. Other than the fiery response from students, there are more reasons to keep the department alive. “Even without the department, we would still need to teach all of the one-thousand level intro classes, because those are needed for the pre-med students, for nursing, optometry, engineering, and chemistry majors, and we would need to teach the labs. But if we lose our graduate program we won’t have any graduate students to teach those labs.” Professor Bahar says.

Professor Majzoub further explains this, saying that “one of the reasons they want to cut our department is because of our graduates. They’re claiming our graduate numbers are low. If you look at our graduation rate, and compare it to the national average, we’re actually doing fine.” In fact, the one of the main reasons that students from St. Louis come to UMSL and stay, is that they can get an affordable education without having to relocate to an entirely different state. Some students even get a chance to study at Missouri S&T and Rolla, as they share graduate programs within the UM system.

UMSL’s mission has always been to provide opportunities to students in the area, where normally they wouldn’t have access due to affordability. If they were to cut the program entirely, it goes against everything UMSL stands for. Professor Majzoub shares these sentiments in saying “How can UMSL satisfy the mission statement when so many in the community are place bound? This is the only public option they have for an advanced technical degree, we’re not meeting the mission statement of the university if we get rid of science on campus.”

These are hard times due to COVID. According to data tables available from UMSL’s website, it shows that freshman enrollment has moved from 474 students to 448---a whole 5 percent loss. On top of this, the APP uses a data analysis software called Burning Glass that analyzes the market share a department has in its region, as well as potential job growth. In looking at the data for UMSL’s share and local job growth, UMSL is placed third in the area with 11.11%, right behind Saint Louis University with 12.50%, and far behind Washington University with 59.72%. These figures are showings for bachelor’s programs, with similar results for higher degrees as well.

On top of this, the job growth is projected to shoot up and far exceed current standings by the year 2028. So it begs the question, where is the analysis of loss coming from? According to Professor Bahar, “They ran the program for physics in general, they left out materials physics, astronomy physics, astrophysics, planetary science, atmospheric physics and geophysics. They left out a ton of other things, and when we run this analysis with this broader net of areas, the job growth more than doubles.” Through her great diligence, Professor Bahar was able to show that with specificity, not generalization, there’s hope and reason for maintaining their program at UMSL. Without a great team of passionate teachers, any department would surely suffer, and that is something that the Physics and Astronomy department doesn’t struggle with.

In continuing this discussion, The Current spoke with Professor Erika Gibb, Chair of Physics and Astronomy, and she shared a similar story to Majzoub and Bahar. “One of the things that particularly impressed me about coming to UMSL, at least at the time, was that they had some good support for doing research.” Within her first year, the University was able to secure grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as NASA, which was a huge boost for the program, along with the ability to have on-campus lab assistance. Now it’s all in the past. “Most of the support is gone now. A lot of the research awards that the university could give to faculty have gone away due to budget cuts.”

It’s been a slow and painful process for the department, despite its struggle for preservation. The current state of affairs doesn’t sit well with Professor Gibb, as would any leader in her position. “I certainly think if you do decide to get rid of a program, it needs to be more than just a short-term procedure they went with this time.”

With everything that’s happened to the department over the years, Professor Gibb finds the response unhelpful for growing the department. “There’s no marketing for any of these programs right now at the university level. So they cut resources and cut the marketing and then expect growth.” She furthers this by saying “I think they expect faculty will be responsible for growth in recruitment even though we’re not trained in recruitment.” This is akin to snipping a rose bush everytime it blooms, taking away it’s water and soil, and telling it to grow---it just won’t work. To Professor Gibb, the response can’t be to gain back what they once had, but moving on to something else. “Students at UMSl primarily come from the St. Louis area and they stay in the area. So what we’re trying to do is talk to the National Geospatial Agency (NGA), and they have a huge St. Louis facility and they want scientists. We’re talking about using the resources we have and retool our curriculum focusing on the needs of local industry, and we would have a more direct way of providing jobs.” This is a clear course of action that would work according to the faculty, and many of the lights are paving the way for this change to happen. Still, the most important key to this issue, who have been watching on the sidelines---are the students.

The reaction was unanimous, no one wants their career path, their life’s passion, to be cut. In trying to gauge the thoughts and feelings from the students, the university sent out an email directly to physics students, asking them what they think about the suggested cancellation. This, of course, went as well as you’d expect, as a massive student outcry came roaring back. Lindsay Solassi, a senior Physics major, was knowledgeable of the situation, and wanted to do everything she could to keep it alive. “ Since finding out about this, students in UMSL's physics club have discussed that we would be happy to start spending more of our time in the club creating outreach programs and visiting high schools. Since this closure decision is being made so soon, though, we may not get a chance to help out in this way.”

Marlie Mollet, a junior Physics Major, had much to say as well, countering the claim that people weren’t interested in Physics, and she has also done plenty of outreach as well. “We would take 5th grade students and teach them about physics and astronomy with hands-on activities. We would also create shows in the planetarium and observatory for them to watch. This is a great way for UMSL to give back to the community. Without the physics students, as we are the ones who are employed to help run the shows, there would be no one to continue The Outreach Program. I can personally say that the kids I met during my time performing the shows were very excited to talk about space.” Both Marlie and Lindsay are adamant about the importance of Physics and Astronomy in the region, and that cutting the program would have more detrimental effects than beneficial ones.

UMSL Alumni, Zak Jost, was one of many graduates who were disheartened by the news. Saying that “I am from small-town Missouri and UMSL was the one and only school that I applied. I went on to become a first-generation college graduate from my family and it was through the Physics department that this was possible. They not only taught me physics, but also gave me teaching and research positions that allowed me to stop cutting grass as part of the UMSL Grounds Crew and start working on applied physics problems in partnership with local industry.” Zak is currently working for Amazon as a Machine Learning Researcher, something he couldn’t have done without the education that UMSL provided, and something that many others couldn’t do without the program.

In reaching out to the APP directly, The Current was prompted to join the next meeting this Wednesday, March 24th, for the final decision to be announced. Many are waiting nervously, and rightfully holding their breath for the committee’s say on the matter. Regardless of the state of affairs now, these are merely suggestions given to the committee. There are no guarantees, but considering the current standing of not just the Physics department, but many others, the chopping block is an intimidating force. The things that have to be kept in mind are the passion, the drive, and intensity that has been shown by UMSL’s learning force---and it’s something to be reckoned with. Whatever the decision may be, the steadfast determination of our school’s students and faculty will push on despite anything thrown at them, and will continue the fight till its end.

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