APS Toolkit Offers a Lifeline to Academic Departments

Chemistry, physics departments find creative ways to work together

By Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society

Hands on top of each other above a table
Photo by Fauxels from Pexels

It’s no secret, especially after COVID-19 spurred interest in online labs, that chemistry and physics are among the most expensive departments to fund. This can make them targets for budget cuts and so-called rightsizing efforts, a thinly veiled term for what is often downsizing. To address the threats of budget cuts and personnel losses, the American Physical Society (APS) developed a toolkit that includes short-, mid- and long-term checklists for developing fruitful relationships with higher education administrators and making a case for the value of these degrees.

APS leaders worked with representatives from more than 50 colleges and universities to develop the Toolkit for Departments Under Threat, which helps faculty and department heads increase the number of majors, augment enrollment, improve research profiles, and act in support of the university’s mission as a whole. It places special emphasis on relationship-building (read: no hastily fired-off emails to administrators expressing dismay at efforts to limit departmental size or resource use).

Faculty must become aware of the economic realities of their institutions and learn how they’re evaluated, according to APS’ Ted Hodapp Ph.D., director of project development, pointing out that “we have to have a department” is no longer an effective argument. “The biggest thing [faculty] don’t understand is the metrics by which they’re being evaluated,” he said, citing student-to-faculty ratios, credit hours available, total number of majors and class size as commonly tracked statistics.

Among other duties, Hodapp is APS’ “primary contact person for departments who are coming to us saying, ‘Help, help, help, the sky is falling!’” He believes part of the solution lies within departments themselves.

“Some faculty members are hanging onto this notion that they’re this completely independent group that is not related to an economic reality of the institution,” Hodapp said. “If you have that perspective, you’re not living where the administrators are; they’re just trying to keep the institute afloat economically … you may not like it, but it is a reality of what’s going on.”

The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Michelle Brooks Ph.D., senior manager of the ACS approval program, said there was no reason for  create a similar resource for chemistry departments because APS’ resource has broad applicability. Furthermore, ACS views the ACS Guidelines as a key tool for institutions: “We encourage schools to use the guidelines to leverage the resources they need to provide the level of education that’s expected for an ACS-approved institution. We encourage them to talk about it in terms of the benefits students are getting … the depth and breadth of education students are getting.”

One area of concern that’s not addressed by the Toolkit, however, is merged STEM departments, chemistry and physics in particular. There are already examples of merged departments within the American Chemical Society’s Approval Program, with the common sentiment that chemistry and physics departments are the most well-matched pair among STEM fields for such a merger.

“As long as the different sciences in the merged STEM department still have autonomy over what their students experience,we don’t have an issue with a merged STEM department,” Brooks said, with the caveat that non-STEM administrators should not dictate science curricula.

César Lozano Ph.D. is the program director for chemistry, physics and math at the Universidad Ana G. Mendez Gurabo Campus. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the university lost nearly a quarter of its students, many of whom left Puerto Rico and applied to universities elsewhere. As enrollment dropped, they consolidated three formerly standalone campuses under a single umbrella and combined departments within campuses, too. Today, the university has a sciences and technology department that offers programs in biology, chemistry and physics, medical technology and environmental sciences. It doesn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in physics, though it has physics classes, but it does feature an ACS-approved chemistry degree program.

Lozano said it has been easy to manage a merged department. “The division is very clear through the courses and labs we have to use. Because we control the budget, there is no problem,” he said, noting most of the budget pays for salaries, and researchers tend to apply for external funding. If all else fails, the university’s chancellor can adjudicate budget allocation; Lozano said sharing ACS approval requirements makes those arguments easy. Less intuitive, he said, was learning to direct a department that includes math; Lozano himself is a chemist.

“Two years ago, math was a department, but with the changes, it’s become part of the chemistry and physics program. They don’t have degrees, so it’s a service program,” he said. Today, an administrative coordinator recruits new math faculty and helps with organizational duties, leaving Lozano with supervisory duties, which he said is “very easy” because of the coordinator’s experience working in the field of mathematics.

Nick Burgis Ph.D. may not be in charge of any math classes, but he’s in a similar position to Lozano. As chair of the chemistry, biochemistry and physics department at Eastern Washington University, Burgis took on his role after departments merged. He said the biggest challenge is the range of programs housed within the department, which includes not only three STEM fields, but also a forensics program.

“We kind of basically got put together, or we were told we were put together, is how we feel,” he said, noting that the university eliminated some administrative roles as the physics department shrank in size.

 “There is some animosity within the department—really, on both sides—because we now have one chair for more people, for instance, and just really have a very diverse body as far as academics,” Burgis said. With this being the first year of the newly merged department, administrative details are among his hurdles.

Communication mismatches are among those early challenges, as the chemistry and physics departments simply were unaccustomed to working together.

“They’re used to having their own discussions, and they’ll report back to me,” Burgis said, describing the physics faculty. Lab organization has been another challenge: “We have a lab technician for chemistry, but the physics side doesn’t have that, so there’s a dichotomy in how lab issues, moving equipment and servicing equipment, come into play.” Contact hours are different between chemistry and physics professors, too, and an administrative support person currently supports only chemistry.

Despite these administrative hurdles, Burgis said the changes remain nearly invisible to students, beyond possibly noticing a chemistry professor is now chairing the department. Unfortunately, the department remains somewhat under threat even after the merger; Burgis was recently asked to consider cutting a physics degree track after programs were reviewed. So far, with the help of the physics faculty, the program will not be cut.

Overall, Burgis said, “The university’s had a lot of financial hardships; declining enrollments, less funding from the state, so it’s been really hard for years. It’s almost like we never recovered from the 2008/2009 meltdown.”

Hodapp agreed that this is a challenge facing many higher education institutions, particularly smaller regional colleges and universities. And, just as Hodapp recommended, Burgis is taking a broader view to combat these issues with an eye to the trend of universities facing lower enrollments.

“Focusing on strengthening enrollments is really where the effort should be as far as resisting that merge,” Burgis said of his advice for other department heads. “Education’s monumentally changing and we don’t know what the federal government’s going to do as far as student loans and free community college; that’s going to impact a lot of universities as well. I think understanding the long game and focusing on building up those programs so they can exist as separate entities is the best course of action.”

“Education’s monumentally changing and we don’t know what the federal government’s going to do as far as student loans and free community college; that’s going to impact a lot of universities as well. I think understanding the long game and focusing on building up those programs so they can exist as separate entities is the best course of action.” - Nick Burgis, Ph.D., Eastern Washington University