Archive for December 28, 2008

No Sympathy for Physics Departments

I followed a link provided at the Physics and Physicists blog to an article written by the head of the Department of Physics at the University of Tennessee. Tough Times for UT Physics Dept describes the impact of funding cuts on the department. The scenario resembles the one at Northwestern University, where I teach. The number of faculty and lecturers decreases steadily, the number of assistants faster, and the tenured faculty have responded by teaching more than they did in the past.

The posted comments are extremely negative, essentially lambasting the author of that article and academia in general for failing to face reality, and for living a cushy life. The contributors do not appear to be warped or irrational, or to bear special animus toward UT or physics. The basic message is stark, however, for example:

I recommend you tighten your belts and forego raises and take benefit cuts, and share the pain of the private sector.

and:

Those of you who work at universities have long enjoyed a lifestyle most of us private-sector folk envy. Welcome to reality, its about time you joined us.

Or in a more pointed manner:

Who wants to support the Department of Perpetual Grievances? I’m sure such sentiment is unfair to science departments but there it is. Clean your academic house up or get increasingly screwed in the future. Academia is rotting from the core. And for the record I’ve got faculty experience and ten years of post HS degrees.

No one posted a single supportive or sympathetic comment.

To be honest, this scares me. The commentators appear to be well-educated people, yet they hold American universities in very low regard. Many of us at universities feel our research activities are in danger, due to falling federal support and the need to spend more time teaching and supporting our departments. If we took guidance from that segment of the American public, however, we would have to spend even less time on research!

It is often said that American education, especially graduate education, is the best in the world. It is supposed to be one of the great engines of technical innovation. Politicians, journalists and scientists in this country have sounded the alarm about declining support for research and the falling levels of interest of American students in graduate-level studies, as well as declining competence. There clearly is a gulf between them and the commentators whose sharp words I quoted above.

Who is right? Are we professors pampered, ripe for pay cuts and more coursework? Are American students avoiding physics and other difficult subjects because we do not do a good job teaching them? Is there too much scientific research in the United States?

You can probably guess my opinion. What’s yours?

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December 28, 2008 at 10:11 pm 3 comments


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