How one department avoided closure with short term efforts
Note: These fictionalized anecdotes give a representational sample of actions taken by departments interviewed, and do not represent any individual department.
The administration at a regional public institution announced they were implementing a fast-tracked program prioritization committee to broadly rank programs and the physics department was under threat.
Over the ensuing month the department took several effective actions. They proactively questioned the projected employment statistics and, after noting their pre-engineering program was not included, had the numbers adjusted. They were also under scrutiny due to the small number of majors they had - with 4 professors, they averaged 40 majors and 8 graduates per year. After realizing that the administration was comparing their program to others on campus, they downloaded AIP/APS statistical data and successfully made the case that, relative to other physics programs, they were within the upper quartile. This led to their being reevaluated with a more positive standing. In order to sustain momentum and build the program, they developed a strategic plan to devote greater focus to their recruiting and retention efforts, and re-energize their Society of Physics Student chapter, explore liaisons with other departments to develop a new track in computational physics, and reassess their curriculum and experiential learning options to better serve students who will directly seek employment after graduation.
Things you can do right now
Make sure you understand the challenges administrators face, and look for ways to help solve their problems.
If you are under imminent threat of some curtailment, consider negotiating for time to make improvements or budget cuts tied to quantifiable markers. For example, could a retiring faculty member whose position renewal is at risk be conditionally replaced with quantifiable markers that must be met for it to be retained?
Validate data that is presented to ensure its accuracy, and provide context or reshape the narrative where appropriate: Is the administration’s data correct? Are double-majors in physics included in your totals?
Ensure appropriate comparisons are being considered. Is physics being compared to psychology to history to biology within your institution, or with physics programs across similar institutions?
Contact alumni, particularly those that the institution has touted in news releases or who have had significant professional accomplishments.
Contact area businesses that have hired your students or with whom you have partnerships, and who can speak to the economic import of having a physics degree.
Use AIP/APS statistics to promote job prospects for physics graduates, expected salaries, and other metrics that might resonate with administrators and trustees viewing challenges through an economic lens. If you have a dual-degree engineering or astronomy track, ensure these career paths are included in the data.
Prepare a one-page summary of strengths and successes within your department, its role in supporting the stated mission of the institution, and potential actions that respond to administrative needs.
Look for avenues of immediate coalition-building if other departments are also under threat and/or the administration is unresponsive.
Reach out to your faculty union or faculty council, if you have one, and find out if collective action is feasible.
Explore potential opportunities to align with better-positioned programs to increase enrollments or attract students without additional courses or resources. For example, tracks in Biophysics, Computational Physics, or Medical Physics that can be advertised to prospective students as well as first- and second-year students in service courses.
- EP3 guidance on:
Things you can do over 6-12 months:
Make sure you understand the challenges administrators face, and look for synergistic ways to help them while advancing your goals.
Consider implementing shorter-term potentially high-impact improvements in your introductory and intermediate courses that could increase retention and entice students to take additional physics courses.
Look for opportunities to contribute to general education with an innovative course that could attract more students.
Engage in program assessments to better understand the needs of students in your program.
Explore opportunities to develop more meaningful pedagogical experiences for your students that align with institutional priorities. For example, is your dean interested in pedagogical experiments that aim to improve student learning and satisfaction, particularly for underrepresented groups?
- EP3 guidance on: Retention of Undergraduate Physics Majors, ,
- PhysPort: Supporting physics teaching with research-based resources
- Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st Century Careers
Present your program in ways that the administration will appreciate and value. The specific metric administrators focus on and base decisions upon can change, particularly at institutions with high administrative turnover. Offer additional metrics that show your contributions in a more positive light. For example, if the “number of majors” is the metric-de-jour, highlight service course contributions by citing “student credit hours per faculty member.”
Ensure that students feel part of the department, and establish a connection to faculty.
Conduct exit interviews and surveys to identify potential improvements that can promote a sense of community.
Establish a dedicated lounge space for students to keep them in the departmental footprint and augment a sense of belonging.
Organize events in which students, and faculty, engage in outreach opportunities (Scouts, “Physics Phun Night”, Observatory Nights) that both strengthen the culture and increase the visibility and value of the department in the eyes of the campus and community.
Keep the administration up-to-date on your initiatives and be sure to share positive outcomes with them (increased recruitment/retention/enrollments, student and faculty awards, alumni successes, etc.).
Share materials that help publicize the great things you do: high quality (suitable for publication) pictures from well-attended events, awards, noteworthy publications or public talks by your faculty all highlight your successes and provide concrete examples they can reference.
Support campus-wide initiatives and priorities and use them to achieve your goals. (E.g., offering a first-year seminar could boost your non-majors enrollments and recruit additional majors, improved retention of students from marginalized groups in your introductory courses increases your number of graduates while also improving equity).
Reach out to admissions staff to solicit best practices in recruiting students, and explore opportunities to market a new track using existing courses.
- EP3 guidance on:
Cultivate relationships with colleagues and connections with other majors and programs to promote your department’s value.
Collaborate on interdisciplinary courses or tracks that play to your department’s particular strengths (e.g., climate science, computational physics, biophysics) and the institution’s identified academic priorities.
Share research, teaching techniques, and/or demonstration equipment to do more with less while building good will.
Make sure your service courses for other majors are supporting the needs of the associated department so you are seen as proactive and beneficial by other programs.
- EP3 guidance on: , ,
Ensure you have strong and collaborative departmental dynamics and commitment to a common mission to the greatest extent possible. Professional relationships can be challenging, but departments that are respected campus-wide as united and effective, versus combative or dysfunctional, have stronger unsolicited support.
Strive to place department members on visible, relevant, and well-connected institutional committees to further these goals and increase departmental visibility more broadly across all campus stakeholders.
- EP3 guidance on: ,
- How to Think Strategically About Committee Work
Some institutions under significant pressure to enact and meet specific benchmarks for an average number of physics majors per year (or minimum enrollment in all courses) have engaged in institutional partnerships with other physics programs to share upper-level courses leveraging online courses and remote technology in an arrangement that allows each to consider all allied students the program in their aggregate number of graduates.
- EP3 guidance on:
- Texas Physics Consortium (TPC)
Things you can do over the next 3 years
Develop and codify a strategic plan that has departmental support and actionable goals with quantifiable metrics for assessment.
An external program review can give valuable insights on your program’s strengths, weakness, opportunities, and also inform your strategic plan.
Work to proactively obtain buy-in from your administration for the review and measures you will take to address identified areas for improvement. You are more likely to receive some support and resources for initiatives that result from this process.
- EP3 guidance on: ,
Engage in a longer term and more data-driven study on deeper curricular efforts that could recruit and retain more students.
Consider whether major pedagogical or curricular overhauls would better promote student success (re-designed lab experiences, studio format introductory courses, integrated computational skills through the major, etc.).
Strategically explore possible new degree tracks that would be attractive to students you can recruit, or to students at your institution that repackage existing resources, particularly those that align with strong programs that enjoy a high number of majors (Computational Physics, Biophysics).
Consider leveraging experience in your Admissions Office and institutional partnerships to offer degrees that would attract students such as a dual-degree engineering program or a high-school teacher preparation program. If minors are counted in your favor, consider ways to make yours attractive and achievable by students who are majoring in other fields such as Astronomy.
Grow your ongoing relationship with your Admissions Office. Meet with recruiting staff annually to ensure they understand the strengths and uniqueness of your program.
Ensure visiting students have a powerful experience with the opportunity to meet with your current students, and have ready responses to potential parental questions regarding entry-level salaries or projected growth in the field.(“Who hires physics bachelors?”; “Why should a student interested in engineering go to a liberal arts college?”).
Keep track of your alumni after graduation and publicize their career successes. Look for synergistic ways to leverage alumni contacts for networking or internship placements that benefit your students.
Invest further in efforts that ensure students feel part of the department and have meaningful connections to your faculty.
Take a deeper look at trends revealed by exit interviews and surveys to identify potential improvements in the student experience.
Have your students apply for Society of Physics Students scholarships and other funding opportunities, and involve them in hiring decisions as appropriate.
Ensure that all your students are aware of and feel welcomed to your lounge space for students to keep them in the departmental footprint and further promote a sense of community.
Encourage students to expand their outreach and community engagement efforts to increase the visibility and value of the department in the eyes of the campus and community.
Continue to celebrate successes of your program such as undergraduate research, outreach and awards both within the department and to the broader community.
Support newer members of your faculty with effective mentorship and encourage their attendance at workshops for new faculty.
Consider sharing upper-level courses with other departments (e.g., quantum mechanics for chemistry and physics majors, solid mechanics for engineering and physics majors).
Look for opportunities to develop strategic ties with other strong or well-positioned departments.
Contribute to and collaborate on campus curricular initiatives (e.g., an integrated science program, a learning-assistant program, improving diversity in STEM).
- EP3 guidance on: ,
Tie additional staffing needs and requests to quantifiable metrics.
Look for synergies, informed by campus budget realities, with the institutional mission and strategic plan that also advance your department’s growth -- for example, partnering with other departments to jointly propose reconfiguring an existing traditional classroom in your area to promote active learning, exploring interdisciplinary revenue-generating programs with other departments, or engaging in partnerships with area industry.
Consider sharing your strategic plan with administrators, keeping them regularly updated on your progress. Work continuously to educate and inform new administrators about your program and its direction while maintaining existing partnerships with others.
Thoughtfully identify important campus-wide committees and other high-profile roles to have physics faculty serving in -- this keeps the department “plugged-in”, raises its profile on campus, and shows your value.
Keep track of where your alumni go and what they do and use the data to make the case that your major provides value.
Cultivate good relationships with your administration by looking for ways to solve their problems while improving your position.
Strive for a positive department climate; administrators invest greater resources in high-functioning departments.
- EP3 guidance on: , ,