By Eugenie Samuel Reich of Nature magazine

Texas higher-education officials delivered a stern message to physicists yesterday that the state is likely to stick to plans to phase out 'low-performing' physics programs within the next year or two if they cannot demonstrate compelling plans to improve.

Members of the American Physical Society requested yesterday's meeting with the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) after announcements in recent weeks that nearly half of the 24 undergraduate physics programs at state funded universities could be on the chopping block if they fail to graduate at least 25 students every 5 years.

"Until now, most faculty members thought their role was to do research and teach courses they were assigned. Now, researchers at institutions in Texas are going to have to take responsibility for students graduating successfully," says Michael Marder, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin who attended the meeting.

All business

The change may not be confined to Texas. The state's plans are being carefully watched by officials in other states who are looking for ways to reduce higher-education budgets. Florida governor Rick Scott, for example, has publicly voiced an interest in similar measures.

The plans are also consistent with a business-based approach to higher education championed by Texas governor Rick Perry, now in the race to be the Republican party nominee for the US presidential elections in 2012.

Among physicists' concerns is the possibility that, if applied inflexibly, business-like metrics such as number of graduates per year could deny students from minority groups access to education in science- and technology-related fields. This is because many low-performing programs are in areas with predominantly black, Hispanic or disadvantaged populations. Statistics provided to Nature by the American Institute of Physics suggest that some 35% of the undergraduate physics degrees awarded in the United States go to students in programs that would not meet the Texas board's requirements for staying open.

But small schools in far-flung places are important to ensure diversity in science, says Lawrence Norris, managing director of the National Society of Black Physicists in Arlington, Virginia. "It's a mistake to paint every low-performing program with the same brush," Norris says.

Robert Thorne, a physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who has redesigned the university's introductory physics courses to increase their appeal to students, says that it is logical to consider closing some smaller physics degree programs. Faculty members could then refocus their efforts on teaching introductory physics and encouraging students to transfer to larger programs for advanced physics courses, he says. But he agrees that student diversity could suffer with the Texas approach.

Fighting to stay afloat

Raymund Paredes, the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, says that there is no intention to target science fields in particular, but that, regardless of a program's importance, he does not expect to give any discipline exemption from the metrics being applied.

"In this budgetary environment, we can't afford the luxury of programs not producing graduates," he says. "It's up to academic departments faced with closure of programs to salvage them."

A spokeswoman for Perry says that the Texas governor expects institutions to identify the most efficient uses of taxpayer dollars.

But, although other undergraduate programs in the state are subject to the same measures, physics degree programs are particularly threatened because they tend to enrol fewer students than many other departments.

Some physicists say that having bachelor's programs in physics can help institutions in disadvantaged communities bring in federal research funds.

For example, Mario Díaz, a physicist at the University of Texas at Brownsville -- which enrols mostly Hispanic students -- says his department was able to raise more than US$5 million for research on gravitational wave astronomy from the US National Science Foundation, in part because reviewers were encouraged by the prospect of enticing minority students into science.

A few weeks ago, however, the university received a letter from the HECB saying its bachelor's program would be phased out. "It's like shooting yourself in the foot," Díaz says. The university plans to appeal the HECB decision at a meeting on 27 October.

This article was reproduced with permission from Nature magazine. It was first published on September 24, 2011.