At a time when a number of small colleges and universities are rethinking and shrinking their curricula due to budget, enrollment and other concerns — in some cases shuttering programs in what are traditionally viewed as core disciplines — developments at Virginia Union University stand out. The university recently reintroduced its physics major.
“Physics is the basis of all sciences — that’s why so many departments do service courses for chemistry majors, or teach physics for math or biology,” said Shaheen Islam, a professor of physics at Virginia Union who won a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to reopen the physics department. “Everybody knows this, so hopefully now we’ll start to see the trend move the other way.”
Islam was referring to a trend of institutions considering shuttering their physics departments as they look for ways to cut costs in a time of uncertain enrollments and financial futures. The University of Southern Maine’s physics department was on the chopping block in 2013, for example, but survived. A number of departments in Texas weren’t so lucky, with the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board announcing in 2011 that it would begin phasing out up to seven of its 24 public undergraduate physics programs for failing to graduate 25 majors every five years, or about five annually. Several cut programs were at Texas’ historically black colleges and universities, causing scientists to worry that the discipline’s diversity gap would be widened as a result.
Virginia Union, another historically black college, had its own physics program through roughly 60 years ago, but it was shuttered, according to information from the department. Its revival was facilitated by Islam’s grant and approximately $700,000 from the university to support a new physics lab.
Islam is currently recruiting majors for physics, as well as for a joint physics and engineering degree that involves three years of studying physics at Virginia Union and two years studying engineering at Howard University. “Engineering is really applied physics, so there’s much for them to study here,” Islam said.
One student who was a physics minor already has decided to stay on campus to complete what will be a triple major in physics, chemistry and mathematics, said Gerard McShepard, chair of the department of natural sciences at Virginia Union. He said the new programs afford students the “opportunity to meet work force demands with the aging population of physicists who will soon retire.”
As to why physics isn’t more popular, despite being so foundational to other sciences, Islam said the discipline tends to evoke Albert Einstein, quantum mechanics and advanced study for students, rather than a marketable degree. “But physics majors don’t have to go into teaching or research,” she said, naming science equipment sales and the military as just two immediate options.
Nationwide, the number of physics majors has actually doubled in the last 15 years, but the net number of departments has declined slightly, according to information from the American Physical Society. Monica Plisch, director of education and diversity at the organization, said the APS has been approached “by a number of physics departments that are under threat of closure due to low enrollments as institutions of higher education change their business model and look at cost-saving measures.”
Virginia Union has won praise from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which advocates for clear general education requirements that promote “foundational” skills and knowledge. “Offering hard science courses, majors and requirements is an indispensable part of the liberal arts core,” ACTA’s president, Michael Poliakoff, former vice chancellor of academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said via email. “Like the space race of the 1960s, at this moment in history, American higher education can ill afford to shortchange students of opportunities in rigorous [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines such as physics, college-level mathematics and other courses that train students in the empirical methods of science.”
He added, “Physical sciences have too often yielded to less rigorous approaches within general education programs. In order to stay relevant, today’s liberal arts college must lead the way, and Virginia Union is a model of how colleges can restore subjects like physics to their rightful place.”