Toolkit for Departments Under Threat

Contributors: Courtney Lannert (Smith College, UMass Amherst), Jim Borgardt (Juniata College)


The American Physical Society (APS) is cognizant that this is a challenging time in higher education, a condition that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Physics Departments are not immune, and in some aspects are more susceptible, with many reporting that they are under varying degrees of threat. This situation prompted APS to task consultants Jim Borgardt and Courtney Lannert, and advisors [Ted Hodapp (APS), Eric Brewe (Drexel University), Scott Franklin (Rochester Institute of Technology), Jesús Pando (DePaul University)] to develop a Toolkit for departments under threat. Learn more about how the Toolkit was developed.

Toolkit Overview

The guidance below was sourced from over 50 interviews with administrators and physics faculty representing a wide range of institution types and experiencing varying threat levels. While many thematic patterns emerged, one lesson is that each department represents a unique ecosystem. There is no silver bullet: some departments doing “all the right things” still find themselves under serious threat, and a tactic that has been effective at one department may be ineffective at others. However, while there are circumstances out of a department’s control, we believe there are opportunities to improve one’s standing within the institution and to positively influence any potential decisions.

Given these considerations, the Toolkit classifies and contextualizes strategies and practices in two ways: by the timescale of action (things you can do right now, over the next 6 months, over the next 3 years) and by the metric you want to improve (increasing your number of majors, increasing your enrollments, etc.). Guidance offered, while gathered from the interviewees, is generalized to focus on these metrics for planning purposes, and by timescale for considering actions given the immediacy of the threat faced.

See Upcoming EventsA regional public institution announced a fast-tracked program prioritization and the physics department was ranked near the bottom. Read more to find out what they did »

See Upcoming EventsThe physics department at a regional private 4-year college (BA/BS only) was under threat of closure due to its small number of majors. Read more to find out what they did »

Things Not To Do

While it is challenging to issue absolutes...

  • Never send a negative communication to any student, alum, administrator, or (especially) outside organization. Take some time to rephrase your thoughts before taking action. A person that complains is not viewed in a positive light.
  • Use quantifiable metrics in your arguments and avoid compulsory or authoritative words “should” or “must”. Ex: “A physics degree is an absolute must to be considered a comprehensive university”. “You should really consider this metric instead of that one; it is far superior”.
  • Don’t publicly criticize administrators as incompetent or inept. While they may have different priorities and perspectives, degrading this relationship only serves to undermine your ability to find common ground or improve the status of your department.


This project was fast-tracked to be quickly available for programs needing immediate guidance in defending themselves against challenges. We welcome your input and feedback as we work to make the Toolkit more useful.