Strategic Plan for the Department of Physics
College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences
University of Maryland
Numerous advances in technology and communications are accelerating the pace of change in society as well as academe. We now find ourselves in a competitive academic environment, in which keeping the “status quo” increasingly means falling behind. This strategic plan is being drafted to help the department take advantage of this rapidly changing environment, where unexpected opportunities and challenges often present themselves and demand a prompt response. This plan, although focused on the future, should build on our tradition of academic excellence. While guiding us toward the future, the strategic plan should also ensure that department maintains the progress it has already made.
When completed, this plan will hopefully reflect the shared vision, mission and goals of our faculty; and will provide an agenda of tasks and objectives to guide our development and choices along the way. The process of developing this plan (started at the faculty retreat and including on-line, threaded discussions) should increase the focus of our programs, establish clear priorities and broaden input on what we do and how we do it.
The Physics department and the University of Maryland have both entered a period of unprecedented opportunities and we have a clear responsibility to take advantage of them. No longer hampered by a tight economy, the State has substantially increased its financial support of the University, and in 1999 the General Assembly reaffirmed its commitment to the University as the Flagship Institution of the State.
The State legislature (with current budget surpluses) and university (with new administration) have both mandated that our efforts be focused on continuing our assent and raising the University of Maryland into the top group of elite public research institutions. Our department is currently one of the top-5 public physics departments in the nation, and is poised to either enter the elite top-10 departments (public or private), or fall below the top 20. (There are eight departments virtually tied with Maryland between number 13 and 20 in the 1999 US News rankings.) Therefore, it is exceedingly appropriate that we use this moment in time to paint an inspirational and imaginative picture of the department as it can and should be. However, we must also face the fact that if we do not diligently act to achieve this vision, we may well have a very different future.
The Department of Physics will build on our tradition of quality and excellence in research, education and outreach programs. We will strive to attain the highest possible level of academic excellence, and to attract and retain the best faculty and students. We will focus on new and truly exciting areas physics, while working to maintain our strongest fundamental programs. We will strive to be ranked among the top 10 physics departments, public and private, in the nation. We will evaluate and refine our programs with academic excellence in mind, and each of our decisions will be based on whether they help to move us closer to this goal.
The department will nominate and work to effectively promote our faculty, students, staff and programs for awards and other recognition. Every member of our department will work to engage alumni, friends and the public, and develop ongoing relationships to improve and support our programs.
As mentioned above, the Physics department has entered a period of unprecedented opportunities. We also have much internal strength that will help us to take advantage of them. Some of our most important opportunities and strengths include:
· A history of excellence: The Maryland physics department has been a top department on campus and recognized nationally for years. We have world-renowned educational and research programs including the number-one Chaos Theory and Nonlinear Dynamics program in the nation. Currently, “US News and World Report” ranks the University of Maryland’s Physics Department fifth overall among public institutions. There are many excellent groups and traditions that have contributed to this success and undoubtedly most of these should be continued.
· Strong Centers, Collaborative and Multidisciplinary Efforts: Without a doubt, our department’s prestige is significantly enhanced though faculty membership, connections and collaborations with our Centers and Institutes. (Including: IPST, CSR, LPR, MRSEC, LPS and others.)
· The high visibility of our faculty in the press and on national panels and forums: Our faculty regularly serve on scientific review boards, publish important articles in national and international media, are interviewed and featured by the press, and receive important awards and recognition. (We have several NAS members and world leaders in their fields.) This is a vital asset and should be encouraged and supported through active efforts by the department.
· Ascending University of Maryland campus: The University is on the move up, and as the campuses stature improves, this undoubtedly helps the reputation of our department. Our campuses combination of student diversity and program strength may be an advantage that can help us to draw some of the very strongest students in the nation.
· The location of the University of Maryland in College Park: Our location may not be as picturesque as Stanford’s campus, but it is a real asset to the department in many ways. The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is located just across route one. Collaborations with the following Federal agencies and laboratories, as well as many others, are facilitated by their close proximity to College Park: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS) supported on the Maryland campus by the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Department of Energy.
· A strong process for and history of faculty recruiting, promotion and retention: the department has been successful at building on its existing strengths. We are attracting excellent new faculty. For example, last year the department was able to recruit one of the top names in Nonlinear Dynamics away from Georgia Tech. In addition, the department’s Appointment, Promotion and Tenure (APT) process has served as a model on campus and seldom results in appeals or rejected promotions on the campus level.
· The growing national need for innovative, unscripted problem-solvers: The high-tech industry and many others in the emerging economy are demanding graduates who have a knowledge of technology and are able to creatively solve new problems as they arise. These basic skills are learned and used in the field of physics.
· Strong research funding and relationships: As mentioned above, many of our faculty members have long-standing collaborations with Federal laboratories and regularly win substantial grants and contracts from Federal funding agencies. In 1997 the AIP reported that Maryland was second only to Berkeley in Physics research expenditures at public institutions.
· Skilled and experienced staff: The department of physics benefits from an excellent staff of clerical and technical support staff, many of whom have had numerous years of university experience.
· Excellent in-house machine and electronics shops: The department of physics shops have helped to design and build incredible new inventions and equipment including satellites for NASA and novel microscopes. Many other campus departments as well as some outside institutions use their services.
· The most extensive physics lecture-demonstration facility in the world: For their classes, faculty members are able to choose among the 1,600 demonstrations, each depicting a particular rule of physics. These demos are also used in various outreach activities including Physics is Phun shows.
· Longstanding and excellent outreach programs to K-12 students: These include the annual departmental open house, hosting the annual Maryland State high-school Physics Olympiad and providing a training site for the National Physics Olympiad team, several Physics is Phun shows each year and the Summer Girls Program, which brings local middle-school girls to work and learn in our classrooms. These programs are being significantly enhanced and expanded through collaborative efforts with the MRSEC, SPS and other units on campus.
The Department of Physics while strong still faces a number of challenges in areas such as base financial support, undergraduate and graduate recruitment, diversity, facilities renewal, and alumni and corporate support. In addition there are some programs within the department that are not thriving.
Even though the Department has been able to attract new resources for initiatives through the enhancement process, it still has structural financial problems. These problems can be traced to two major areas – graduate student support and information technology support. Competing for top graduate students requires that our offers be competitive with other top programs. To this end we raised teaching assistant salaries in 1998 by approximately 20%. This put us, at the time, into parity with the upper group of our competition. This was deemed necessary by the vast majority of our faculty because of the high cost of living in this area. In the two years since this increase the University of Maryland has added only 5% of the funding for these salaries, so the rest has had to come out of existing Departmental funds.
Information technology support has been a major problem all over the campus. Physics, which relies heavily on computers for research, teaching and administration, has felt this acutely. Specifically, Physics has over 750 computers on our network in the Physics building alone. We currently employ and pay five computer support people, however we only have sufficient State funds for two. In addition we have put substantial resources into workstations and computers, especially in teaching laboratories.
These two areas (Graduate student and InfoTech support) alone have generated nearly a $400,000 per year deficit. Start-up costs for recent moves into new areas have also put a substantial financial burden on the Department. Our priorities committees, over the years, recognized that these moves would entail these expensive costs. While the campuses new enhancement process has been extremely beneficial to the Department, it has also exacerbated our financial problem by supporting a more rapid expansion into these new areas than was originally envisioned. The University and College have shared these costs, but they have been high. In the last two years, our two hires in non-linear dynamics, plus our one hire in nano-electronics have cost over $2 million. The college and university have shared this burden, but still the Department portion has been almost $700,000.
The Department anticipated some of these problems. Nearly six years ago the Priorities committee suggested that the department downsize and use resources from retirements to build a stronger department. A combination of circumstances has conspired to prevent this from happening. First, the University and college (CMPS) have taken about $650,000 and nearly 6 faculty lines from the Department’s budget. Second, we have been forced to pick up substantial costs associated with OMB Circular A-21. In summary, the Department of Physics is faced with several significant, structural budgetary challenges that must be overcome if we are to maintain our current status, let alone achieve our goals.
The quality of our graduate students has a major impact on the research productivity and overall reputation of our department. In addition many graduate students play an important part in the educational process as teaching assistants. Our program is highly regarded, and as a result we get applications for admissions from many of the top students in the US and from abroad. Unfortunately, most of the absolute best students that we accept choose schools that are ranked above us. This is inevitable, but we should be attracting more of these top students than we do currently.
Adding to this problem is our reputation for one of, if not the hardest graduate qualifying exams in the country. While this may also be a departmental strength, the qualifying exam does put fear in the hearts of many graduate students, and this may actually deter some good students from applying.
The quality of our undergraduate students easily makes them some of the top undergraduates at the University of Maryland. This year 20% of the students offered admission to Physics were offered Bannaker-Key scholarships. This compares to the overall rate of less than 3% for the campus as a whole. In total we have approximately 140 physics majors. Unfortunately, that number is low for a department of our size. While the physics major shortage is a national trend, (especially among women and minorities who also lack role models) we should strive to do better at Maryland. One cause of the problem is that many students and parents do not realize the fact that physics graduates are actually sought after in the work force. (The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is addressing the dilemma, sometimes called the “Hidden Physicist Problem” and we are actively participating in this project.)
The Physics Department is spread out over five buildings across campus. If all of these facilities were adequate there would still be a problem, because the coherence and informal daily interactions, which a department should have, do not currently exist. As it is, our facilities are far from adequate. The Physics building is simply a disaster. Trying to accomplish state-of-the-art experimental research in a 50-year-old building (that still has fuses) is not only difficult; the necessary modifications to make it possible are prohibitively expensive. Environmental and electrical stability are poor at best, and our teaching labs are old and out of date. In short, we need one, comprehensive, new facility.
Most research groups in the Department are thriving, but a few are not. The common characteristic of the non-thriving groups is that they once included leaders in their specific disciplines, but these top faculty have since retired and have not been replaced by strong, younger faculty. Fortunately, most of these research areas have a potential for external funding and could be continued if new faculty were hired.
Some other challenges that may hinder our ability to reach our goals include:
· Increased competition for State, Federal and private funds: More and more universities and corporate R&D programs are applying for research funding. Each year it gets a bit more difficult for university departments to secure the funding that they need for teaching infrastructure and research. As people become aware of this situation, the competition for the limited available funds increases.
· The perception on the campus that Physics (and CMPS) are rich and do not need campus resources.
· The improving, but still relatively low prominence/standing of the University of Maryland campus when compared with other top physics department campuses. (Columbia, Yale, Michigan, UCLA, etc.) (“Maryland is a good institution with a top physics department.”)
· A general tendency within the field of Physics to only consider successful those students who complete Physics Ph.D.s: While other fields have traditionally kept in touch with their undergraduate and graduate alumni, many physics programs have ignored those who do not go on to become physicists. Unfortunately, many of these students are also some of the people who end up solving the “unscripted problems” for high-tech companies and Wall Street firms and are often in a better position to give back to the department.)
· A lack of externally focused communication at the departmental level: Some of the research groups and centers are very effective at communicating on their own behalf. However, the department has lacked an overall plan and strategy regarding external communication.
The Department of Physics is committed to academic excellence. In fact, moving the department to a higher level of academic excellence is the central goal of our strategic plan. One, and probably the most commonly cited measure of this goal, is our standing in the national rankings. The Department aims not to just keep its current standing, but move into the "Top 10" physics departments in the United States. This will be a difficult task as most of the top 10 schools are private. (By the US News ranking there are only 4 public universities ahead of us). To accomplish this task we must strengthen our recruitment and retention efforts for faculty and students. We must also support and promote our excellent programs, faculty and students, so others are also aware of our success.
Quality faculty will be the most important single factor in improving our standing. To move ahead of the very best departments in the country, we must leverage our resources and build a faculty that is even more widely recognized for its excellence. Specifically this means taking advantage of the centers of excellence within our own department, college and university. It also means leveraging the resources of our geographic region, such as NASA Goddard, NIST, NRL, NIH, LPS and NSA to our advantage.
Perhaps the second most important factor in improving the reputation and productivity of our department is the quality of the students we attract. If we are to move up, we must build a program that attracts students away from the schools ranked above us. To do this we must have outstanding research programs in areas that top students want. We must have opportunities and facilities that attract them. We must also have a program that is competitive in terms of student support, environment and opportunities. (Our campuses combination of student diversity and program strength may be an advantage that can help us to draw some of the strongest students.) We must accurately identify top prospective students, focus on improving the applicant pool’s gender and diversity, and be creative in our recruiting plan to attract more of these top students. We must aggressively use all the university and external resources available to us.
To accomplish the goal of maintaining and improving academic excellence we must first solve the Department's financial problems. The Department must have the resources to: hire faculty in new and existing areas as faculty retire, provide start-up for new ventures, make competitive salary offers, support our existing faculty so that they are not lured away, provide competitive offers to graduate students in terms of salary, support and facilities, and to attract and keep excellent staff.
The Physics Department does not plan to increase its size, but it must strengthen itself at its current size in order to maintain its standing. (Keeping the status quo will undoubtedly mean loosing ground in relation to our competition.) To accomplish this necessary improvement, we plan to combine the resources generated from retirements, resources provided by the University, and resources we will raise from alumni, friends, foundations and corporations. However, if we are to achieve this goal we must have help from our college (CMPS). The Physics Department cannot be drained of resources to support other units if it is to maintain its quality and solve the critical financial problems that it faces.
Strong departments are characterized by having nationally recognized research activities in a number of areas. The key element in this recognition is intellectual strength not group size. While certain fields of physics are present in virtually all highly ranked programs, many prestigious departments do not have all disciplines represented. Our department is large by national standards and in part this size has given us recognition for having strong groups in most areas of physics. It is clear that as the field of physics expands and our department does not, that there are several possible ways for us to approach these areas. Some new areas will be handled by redirection efforts within our existing groups (nano-electronics within Condensed Matter is an example). The other possibility is that we will need to forgo certain areas of study or reduce the size of our commitments to existing areas. Again it is important to note that it is the strength of groups that is important not their size. We must therefore strive for strength with each hiring and promotion decision and not simply replace what currently exists. We must also strive to achieve recognition for the outstanding work done by our faculty.
The department must aim, in its planning process, to build on strengths and maintain certain core areas of the field. We must also move thoughtfully into new areas that will have an important impact in the future (e.g. areas that will attract students, increase funding and have a positive effect on the economy and our region). It is also important to carefully support areas in which we can leverage our resources, so that we can build competitive advantages for our department.
The field of physics is changing much faster than our faculty turnover. With the average faculty member spending more than thirty years in the Department, we must expect that their field and the Department may be very different when faculty are in the middle and end of their careers, than when they begin. If we are to maintain a vital department, we must encourage faculty to keep up with new directions in their fields; but we must also support our faculty who want to move into new areas. To this end we should develop a plan for “restart-up packages.” This would provide opportunities for bridge support, faculty visitations, or other mechanisms to encourage faculty to reach the cutting-edge of a new field.
· Curriculum revision
· Computational Physics
· Alternative tracks
· More choices
· Innovation in teaching
· Applied masters
The new physical sciences complex is the highest priority for the Physics Department. This new facility is currently in the University of Maryland plan and will be a two-phase project to provide a new home for Physics, IPST and Astronomy. This building is a huge undertaking and is slated to cost nearly $200 million dollars. Our faculty and staff will play an important role in, not only the design of the facility, but in helping to raise funds and working to get construction started as soon as possible.
In the interim, we will strive to improve our existing building. We will address “Red-Flag” issues to provide a stable environment for research within our existing facilities. We are also adding a high tech classroom and are pushing to upgrade our current computer network wiring to at least 100Mb/sec.
As our courses become more reliant on computers, it is necessary that our teaching assistants have easy access to computers. This means that TA offices must have computers. Virtually all undergraduates have their own network-connected computers; faculty and staff members also have these computers. The only segment of our community that does not is our teaching assistant pool. We must rectify this situation.
The reliance of the department on computers is nearly complete. Computers pervade most aspects of department life. As described above, the computer support that the department currently provides (inadequate as it is) is proving to be a substantial financial burden. We must both improve our computer support and reduce the cost to the department.
The Physics Department has excellent research support facilities. These include the Mechanical Development Group (machine shop), the Electronics Development group (electronics shop), and the student shop. These shops are important to the research effort of the department. Efforts will be made to ensure that the shops continue to provide important services to the department, and that they are economically viable.
Our Lecture Demonstration Facility is one of, if not, the best facility of its type in the world. The effect of the quality of this facility pervades the department in teaching, colloquia and especially outreach. We must maintain this facility and continually strive to improve it.
The Department of Physics is a top-rated program at the University of Maryland. Even given the strong support the University as a whole is enjoying from the State, it is unlikely that we can effectively compete with even the top-ranked public universities, let alone the private schools, without substantial help from alumni, friends, foundations and corporations. Until recently the Department (and the University) has done little to track, inform or develop a relationship with our alumni. We have also done very little to encourage and support our corporate relationships. We must do more in this area, and we need the help of all faculty and staff in these efforts. We need to develop relationships and raise funds to recruit top students and faculty, as well as to support construction of our new building.
As is occurring throughout society, the role of the Web continues to increase in all aspects of the department’s activities. Perspective students and faculty as well as alumni look to the web for information about the department. Evaluators from funding agencies and those ranking the department look to the Web as well. It is critical that we have a strong presence on the Web and that it accurately reflect the many creative and diverse activities of the department. Check here for a Physics guide to web pages.
[Brief overview of the strategic planning, enhancement and priorities processes, as well as mechanisms to encourage and support interdisciplinary collaborations.]
[To be determined.]