Toolkit for Departments Under Threat

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


The American Physical Society (APS) is cognizant of many challenges facing higher education institutions, such as the need for budget cuts, reduction in tenure-track faculty, and decreasing enrollments. Many of these challenges are likely to worsen due to an anticipated decline in college-age people in 2026 and beyond. Physics departments, in particular, report that they face varying degrees of threat of, for instance, being reduced in size, merged with other departments, and/or closed.

The challenges reported by physics departments prompted APS to develop a Toolkit for departments under threat. (Learn more about how the Toolkit was developed.) The Toolkit includes a set of practices that physics departments can implement immediately and in the short term, in ways that fit the department’s local context, to address current or future threats. Recognizing that the best time to address a threat is before it becomes serious, the Toolkit also suggests ongoing and long-term steps that departments can take to avoid coming under threat.

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 tactics that were effective for one department may prove ineffective for others. However, while some circumstances are out of a department’s control, we believe there are opportunities for every department to improve its standing within the institution and positively influence any potential decisions.

Given these considerations, the Toolkit classifies and contextualizes strategies and practices in two ways: by the timescale of action (i.e., things you can do right now, in 6 to 12 months, and over the next 3 years) and by the metric to be addressed. Guidance offered, while gathered from the interviewees, is generalized to focus on metrics for planning purposes, and by timescale for considering actions based on 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, we recommend avoiding the following actions, which can be detrimental to your success.

  • Don’t send a negative communication to any student, alumnus/a, administrator, or outside organization. Instead, take some time to rephrase your thoughts before taking action. A person who complains is not viewed in a positive light.
  • Don’t use compulsory or authoritative words such as “should” or “must.” For example, “A physics degree is an absolute must to be considered a comprehensive university” or “You should really consider this metric instead of that one; it is far superior.” Instead, use quantifiable metrics in your arguments.
  • Don’t publicly criticize administrators as incompetent or inept. While they may have different priorities and perspectives, degrading relationships with administrators undermines your ability to find common ground and/or improve the status of your department.


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

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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