The Idea of a University as a Machine with Interchangeable )) Parts

RONALD BLUM

January 06, 1993|By RONALD BLUM

Just before exams week and the Christmas holidays, th Board of Regents of the University of Maryland informed the schools that since we had failed to control our appetites for state funds, they were going to do it for us.

They will cancel over 100 majors in various ''unproductive'' departments all over the state, from food-service administration to basics like physics and biology. The resultant confusion will be the envy of airport baggage handlers everywhere.

At Towson State University, in my department, physics, we are to continue teaching undergraduate physics for another two years, after which all the physics majors will get themselves hence to UMBC or College Park, which are the board's anointed. We will then teach what is known in the profession as ''baby

physics,'' unable to give our students any courses of significant interest to faculty who are dedicated to physics as a discipline.

The regents have turned away from the classic model of higher education and condemned us to the kind of vo-tech training needed for the maintenance and repair of products that other, smarter, civilizations have built. Some cuts are justifiable, but certain peculiar anomalies arise from the board's decree.

For example, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, with only 6 chemistry majors, will take over Salisbury's 57 majors, although UMES has been sending students to Salisbury for advanced work in chemistry. UMBC has a fine theater program which is distinctly different from Towson State's program, but Shakespeare on Wheels will get a brake job.

In 1990 Towson State graduated eight Bachelors of Science in physics to UMBC's three, and 44 to UMBC's 15 from 1986 to 1990, second only to College Park and the Johns Hopkins. Nobody even asked UMBC if it wanted the added responsibility for undergraduate physics education.

It is hard to comprehend why a subject as fundamental as university physics should not be taught north of Catonsville. I commute from Lutherville to Catonsville several times a week to take graduate courses at UMBC, and I find it easier to go to Europe. Some will be unable to commute, like the young family man in my solid-state physics course who --es in at 4 p.m. from his nearby job and --es right back to work after class. But the

board has decreed: ''Let them commute.''

Students and faculty are not serfs; they cannot be moved about like furniture. Teachers do not come with part numbers and are not interchangeable; their backgrounds and motivations are intrinsic to the way they teach.

The long-term effect of academic de-emphasis will be to lower the level of commitment and professionalism on the second-tier campuses. That's right, Virginia, second-tier. Some campuses are clearly more equal than others.

The university system could become an octopus, with the head and brain in College Park and just a lot of little suckers everywhere else. This is not a recipe for the betterment of Maryland. Can you have truly educated graduates emerging from a school where physics and chemistry will only be taught at the high school level? Can you expect culture to thrive in our western mountains if Frostburg must exclude creative professionals in art and music and literature?

There has got to be more to education than that, more to civilization than just counting the bucks.

Ronald Blum teaches in the physics department at Towson State University.

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