The Department of Physics while strong still faces a number of challenges in areas such as base financial support, student recruitment, facilities renewal, and alumni and corporate support. In addition there are some programs within the department that are not thriving.
Even thought the Department has been able to attract new resources for new 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 we 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 the upper group of our competition, but given the cost of living in this area it was deemed necessary by the vast majority of our faculty. In the two years since this increase the University of Maryland has only added 5% to these salaries with the rest still coming out of 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 five computer support people with state funds for two. In addition we have put substantial resources into workstations and computers within the department.
These two areas alone have contributed to a nearly $400k per year deficit. However, the need for our department to move into new areas has also put a substantial financial burden on the Department. Our priorities committees have over the years recognized that this sort of move would entail expensive start-up costs. The enhancement process, while extremely beneficial to the Department, has actually exacerbated the 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 $2M. This has been shared three ways, but still the Department share has been almost $700k.
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 CMPS have taken about $650k and nearly 6 faculty lines from the Department budget. Second, we have been forced to pick up substantial costs associated with OMB Circular A-21.
The quality of our graduate students has a major impact on the research productivity and the overall reputation of our department. In addition they 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 by many of the top students in the US and from abroad. Our problem is that many of the absolute best choose schools that are ranked above us. That this happens is inevitable, but we should be able to attract more of these top students than we do.
The quality of our undergraduate students top undergraduates easily makes them some of the best students 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. The problem we face is the number of physics majors is low for a department of our size. We have about 140 majors. While this is a national trend, we should do better. One reason that has been identified is that many students do not realize that physics graduates are sought after in the work force. (This problem that some called the “Hidden Physicist Problem” is being worked on by the AIP and we are participating with them in it).
The Physics Department is spread out in five buildings across the campus. If all of these facilities were adequate this would still be a problem because the coherence, which a department should have, doesn’t exist. As it is our facilities are far from adequate. The Physics building is a disaster. Trying to do state of the art experiments in a 50-year-old building (that still has fuses) is not only difficult it’s prohibitively expensive. Environmental and electrical stability are poor at best. Our teaching labs are old and out of date.
Most research groups in the Department are thriving, but a few aren't. The common characteristics of these groups are that they have had people were leaders in these disciplines, but they have retired and not been replaced by young people. In most of these areas there is potential for external funding and for the groups to continue if supported by the Department.
The Department of Physics is committed to academic excellence. The Department aims not to just keep its current standing, but move into the "Top 10" of 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 faculty recruitment and retention efforts. 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 to build a faculty that is widely-recognized for its excellence. Specifically this means taking advantage of the centers of excellence within our own department, college and university. Plus it means leveraging the resources of the region such as Goddard, NIST, NRL, NIH 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. We must build a program that attracts students away from schools above us if we are to move up. 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 what we offer students in terms of support, environment and opportunities. We need to be creative in our plan to attract top students and we must aggressively use all the resources available to us.
To accomplish the goal of maintaining and improving academic excellence we must solve the Department's financial problems. The Department must be able to : hire faculty in new and existing areas as faculty retire, provide start-up for new ventures, make competitive salary offers to new faculty, pay our existing faculty well enough that are not lured away, provide competitive offers to graduate students both in terms of support and facilities, and attract and keep excellent staff. The Physics Department does not desire to increase its size, but instead to strengthen its self at the size it currently is. To do this we plan to use the resources generated from retirements, resources from the University and resources from external support from alumni, friends and corporations. However, if we are to accomplish this goal we must have help from CMPS. The Physics Department cannot be used as a source of resources for other units if it is to maintain its quality and solve the critical 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. 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. We must also strive to achieve recognition for the outstanding work done by our faculty.
The department must aim in its planning process to maintain strengths in certain core parts of the field and building on existing areas of strength. We must also move thoughtfully into new areas that will have an important impact in the future (e.g. areas that will attract students, funding and be economically important to the economy and our region). It is also important to choose areas in which we can leverage our resources so that we have a competitive advantage for our department.
The field of physics is changing 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 of their careers than when they begin. If we are to keep a vital department we must encourage faculty to keep up with new directions within their fields, but we also must help our faculty who want to move into new areas. To this end we should develop a plan for “restartup”. This might provide opportunities for bridge support and faculty visitation or other support.
o Computational Physics
o Alternative tracks
o More choices
o Innovation in teaching
· Applied masters
The new physical sciences complex is the highest priority for the Physics Department. This new facility as it currently is in the University of Maryland plan will be a two-phase project that will provide a new home for Physics, IPST and Astronomy. This building will be a huge undertaking and is slated to cost nearly $200M. Our faculty and staff must play an important role in not only the design of this facility, but in helping to raise funds for it and to work toward getting it 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 for upgrading 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 members and staff members also have these computers. The only segment of our community that doesn’t is our teaching assistant pool. We must try and rectify this situation.
The reliance of the department on computers is nearly complete. Computers pervade all aspects of department life. As described above, the computer support we are currently providing is proving to be a substantial financial burden. Still the level of support we currently provide is inadequate. 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 should be made to make sure that these shops continue to provide these important services to the department and 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 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 with corporate relations. We must do more in this area. We need the help of all faculty and staff in this effort. We need to raise funds to use in recruiting top students and faculty as well as to eventually help get our new building built.
The role of the Web continues to increase in all aspects of the department. 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.