BELLERIVE — An ongoing review of degree programs offered at the University of Missouri’s four campuses had put physics on the chopping block in St. Louis. But the undergraduate program won a reprieve after an outcry from students and area scientists.
The plan approved by University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Kristin Sobolik last month restores the bachelor’s degree in physics but suspends the master’s and doctorate degree programs, which have 13 students currently enrolled.
Objections from students and the local science community followed the original recommendation to disband the entire Physics Department. The 38 professors at Washington University’s Physics Department sent a letter to UMSL leaders in March asking them to reconsider downsizing their program.
The UMSL physics program “is an active and well-regarded department that has a history of major contributions to science in St. Louis and beyond, and is developing great prospects for undergraduate education and training,” including a proposed partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the letter stated.
Nearly four years ago, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi requested that all campuses conduct audits after the state issued a report claiming half of the 1,800 degree programs at public colleges and universities fell short of state standards for graduates and other measures.
The Academic Priority Program faculty committee at UMSL started meeting last year to review 12 degree programs flagged in 2017 for lack of growth. Sobolik’s cabinet of administrators made some changes to the committee’s recommendations, including restoring the bachelor’s degree in physics.
The plan for 2021-2022 includes several other changes to degree programs:
• The Anthropology Department will be dissolved, with faculty moved to other departments. Students can minor in anthropology but no degree programs will be offered. The department had previously been threatened with closure in 2018.
• Mathematics and statistics will absorb the Physics and Astronomy Department. In three years, the university will review whether the merger was successful in its goals “to streamline curriculum, enhance student enrollment and success and generate new revenue.”
• The doctorate degree program in mathematics will be suspended.
• The doctorate program in political science will be suspended with a review in three years. Too many students have been slow to complete their degrees, according to the committee’s report. The university first considered cutting the program three years ago, and the numbers have not improved significantly, according to the report.
Students in eliminated programs will be allowed to finish their degrees.
“While this was a difficult discussion and decision, I am convinced this is the right way forward for our students and community,” Sobolik wrote in a message to the UMSL campus last month.
No tenured faculty lost jobs in the degree downsizing process, and the university has not released figures on any budget saving from the cuts. More than half of the UMSL faculty and staff took pay cuts of up to 10% in the last year because of the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The strength in UMSL’s program physics program, according to the Washington University professors, includes its accessibility and affordability for local students. Astrophysicists from Washington U. have used equipment that is unique to UMSL, including an atomic-resolution microscope, and the private university recruits UMSL physics students into its graduate program, according to the letter.
“Eliminating the Physics department would greatly diminish UMSL’s standing and shrink the opportunities for STEM (science/tech/engineering/math) research and training in the St. Louis area. We hope that UMSL’s administration will re-examine the economic and educational basis for its decision,” the letter said.
As part of the process of meeting student and industry demand, UMSL in the last five years has added new bachelor’s degree programs in international relations, actuarial science, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, computing technology, organizational leadership, sport management and applied psychology of child advocacy studies. The university has also added master’s degree programs in cybersecurity and supply chain and analytics.
Meanwhile, across the University of Missouri System, Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla is looking to add two degree programs and combine two others this fall. The new programs, a master of science in water science and engineering and a bachelor of science in education to train more math and science teachers, are awaiting approval from the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education.
Two degree programs will be combined — the bachelor of arts in English and bachelor of science in Technical Communication will merge into a bachelor of science degree in English and Technical Communication.
“Combining these degrees has been a discussion for a couple of years now, since we found that English majors were taking more technical communication courses to strengthen their career readiness and technical communication majors were taking extra English courses to improve their writing and analytical skills,” said university spokesman Andrew Careaga, who said the program merger was not a cost-cutting measure.
There are no cuts to degree programs this fall at the University of Missouri-Columbia, but the flagship campus experienced a significant degree cutting process in 2018.
A spokeswoman for University of Missouri-Kansas City did not respond to an inquiry.
Tuition across the UM System is expected to increase this fall, if approved by the Board of Curators. In-state undergraduate tuition increases would range from 2% at UMSL to 5% at Mizzou. With the increase, UMSL would have the highest cost of all four campuses, at $379 per credit hour.