The discontinuation of the physics program at Emporia State has been temporarily put on hold and the program has been granted until Dec. 22 to create a plan to prevent the bachelor of arts and bachelor of science in physics from being discontinued.
“I appreciate the dean’s and the provost’s willingness to slow the process down a little bit and proceed forward cautiously,” said Jorge Ballester, a professor of physical sciences at ESU since 1990.
Physics is an important discipline to teach at a university, according to Ballester.
“(Physics) is a discipline that deals with a very fundamental approach to understanding what’s going on in the universe around us,” Ballester said. “Of course, it’s distinguished from earth science and chemistry and the biological sciences, in general, but I think the physicist’s approach to understanding the universe is a valuable perspective.”
However, the most important gauge on the value of the program is the success stories that come from graduates, according to Ballester.
“We provide students with some really great opportunities to fulfill their dreams in the discipline,” Ballester said.
Recently, Ballester was in touch with one ESU physics aluma, Lizeth Magana, who was in the process of defending her dissertation at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Additionally, she was offered a research position at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Her husband, Rhyan Sawyer, is also an ESU alumnus and just finished his PhD, as well. Sawyer is currently a postdoctoral researcher for the University of Iowa.
“They graduated ESU, they’re now married and they both just finished their PhDs working on NASA projects that they wanted to do, they both dreamt of doing,” Ballester said. “So I think we provide a path for students that might not have that opportunity. We have a very special path.”
Additionally, Ballester cited that twice in the last five years, the Shepherd Scholar has been a physics major. The Shepherd Scholars program gifts a $2,000 scholarship and a plaque to 12 of ESU’s “most outstanding students,” according to emporia.edu.
“When I look at the individual stories of the students that came through our physics program and moved on to doing what they’re doing,” Ballester said. “They’re really doing great things and I’m hoping that the university wants to continue to be able to tell those kinds of stories.”
Brent Thomas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, temporarily rescinded his original recommendation to discontinue the physics program on Oct. 21.
“The retraction of my recommendation at this time is to provide the department with some time to develop a viable plan for increasing headcount majors, number of completions per year, and overall SCH (student credit hours) within the physics course offerings,” Thomas stated in his letter to vice president of academic affairs and acting president, George Arasimowicz, and president of the faculty senate, Brenda Koerner.
Thomas cited conversations with the chair of the physical sciences department, Richard Sleezer, as one of the reasons he decided to give the department more time.
“I guess I saw value in giving the department a little time to try to figure out a plan,” Thomas said. “I felt that the department had an interest in doing that and I felt like we could justify giving them the time to do so. I didn’t see a reason not to.”
Additionally, the money that would be saved by discontinuing the physics program would not be available immediately, according to Thomas. This is because ESU would allow the students who are already in the program to finish their degrees.
“So, given that reality, why not give the department a little bit more time to do this,” Thomas said. “If we legitimately can’t come up with something that we believe could turn it around and make it viable, well then I turn my recommendation back in and faculty senate goes to work again. But that doesn’t change the timeline of our budget situation.”
Thomas is confident that the faculty of the physics department will be able to come up with a viable plan to keep the program going.
“They’re smart people,” Thomas said. “And they’re good people. And they’re people that I have confidence in. So, if they’re given an opportunity to do some thinking and work on this, I have confidence that they’ll put their best foot forward for it.”
Ballester is also confident that the department can come up with an acceptable plan.
“There’s some real options that we haven’t been able to act on previously and so maybe it’s an extra opportunity to get support to try other things, now,” Ballester said.
Ballester is working on the plan with the two other full-time faculty members, Robert Jones and Christopher Pettit, from the physical science department, which houses the physics program. The three are working alongside Sleezer.
“The thing is to come up with things that are real,” Ballester said. “Not to just have fanciful, grandiose ideas that are not realistic. We want to put together real things that can actually be done.”
Some of the ideas that will be presented, had already been discussed before the discontinuance was recommended, according to Ballester. These ideas include how to continue the existing parts of the program and some new initiatives.
“Of course, there’s always been new ideas floating around,” Ballester said. “Sometimes informal conversation generates new ideas, but sometimes they just kind of stay there because it’s not the right time for them or there’s just no personnel to do it with.”
There have been several discussions over the years about discontinuing the physics program, according to Ballester. However, the program was always able to make the necessary changes to keep it going.
“It’s not that big a surprise to be scrutinized,” Ballester said. “The fact that it actually went to the point of an actual recommendation (of discontinuance) from the dean, that was the most extreme thing that has happened during my time here.”
The recommendation to discontinue the physics program came from Thomas on May 3. Thomas cited low headcount and high cost as the reasons behind his recommendation.
“This recommendation is motivated by budgetary concerns and is not a reflection of the quality of our physics program,” Thomas stated in his letter to the previous vice president of academic affairs, David Cordle.
The Kansas Board of Regents, or KBOR, sets minimum thresholds for programs that universities are supposed to meet, according to Thomas. Unfortunately, the physics program does not meet those requirements.
The total number of physics majors, not including those seeking an education degree, had fallen 44.4% over the past five years, according to the most recent departmental program indicators.
Demand for undergraduate physics courses for any major had also fallen 29.4% in the last five years. Additionally, the costs of running the physics program had exceeded the money being made. This resulted in a net loss of almost $89,000, according to recent financial analyses.
The data that was used to make the recommendation to discontinue the program was taken from 2015 to 2019, according to Thomas’s recommendation letter.
Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic was not a factor in the decrease of students in the program.
“This is more of a chronic issue,” Thomas said. “But, just like anything else, COVID has not been kind to enrollment pretty much anywhere on campus, but I don’t think that really impacted those numbers I was looking at, at that time.”
Following Thomas’s letter rescinding his recommendation to discontinue the program, the faculty senate canceled their discontinuance hearing that was scheduled for Oct. 26.
The senate would have heard from faculty and students in the program as well as alumni of the program. After evidence was gathered, the senate would have written and submitted a recommendation on whether or not to discontinue the program to the president of the university.
The president makes the final decision on a program’s discontinuance, according to the University Policy Manual. That decision could be the opposite of what the faculty senate recommends, according to Thomas.
ESU is currently between presidents since the previous president, Allison Garrett, took a new position in Oklahoma last month.
However, this did not play a role in Thomas’s decision to rescind his recommendation.
“It doesn’t matter who happens to be the president that moment, (they) will ultimately be the decision maker,” Thomas said. “So that wouldn’t have mattered if it was the previous president, our current acting president or presumably the interim president should be coming next, I assume. Whoever’s in that role at the moment, when faculty senate does conclude their work, it’ll be up to them to make that decision.”