The regents' wrong-headed savings plan

J. David Rawn

January 20, 1993|By J. David Rawn

THE state Board of Regents has proposed to eliminate many programs in the University of Maryland System, including chemistry and physics at Towson State University, chemistry at Salisbury State College and theater at UMBC.

The proposals are said to save money and improve the quality of education in the system. These assertions are demonstrably false. If the Board of Regents takes its responsibility seriously, these ill-considered cuts will not be implemented.

First, consider the assertion that the moves will save money.

The destruction of the chemistry and physics departments at Towson State has consequences for the Maryland economy and therefore affects all of the citizens of Maryland. This state is said to be recruiting biotechnology companies. If you were the president of such a company, or if you were providing venture capital for such a company, would you locate your business in a state in which science education was being willfully decimated?

Think about the image of a state that arbitrarily and capriciously destroys the chemistry and physics departments of its universities with one hand and simultaneously attempts to attract high-technology companies with the other. This is clearly a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

Next, consider the intellectual basis of the Board of Regents proposal.

No doubt in a world dominated by economic considerations, the view that there is intellectual merit in a university education seems downright quaint. And it is probably naive to note that the physical sciences have been a part of every university since the Middle Ages.

But what is the scope of human knowledge? In the realm of pure reason, we can make logical assertions in mathematics and devise proofs of those assertions. Then, when we confront the myriad phenomena of the natural world, we make a startling discovery: The formal relations of mathematics can be applied to the systematic study of nature. We call this study physical science: physics and chemistry. We test whether the hypotheses erected by the physical sciences are "true," demanding that they explain in precise, mathematical, quantitative detail the known facts about the world. We further demand that these theories predict phenomena which have not yet been observed.

The knowledge of the physical world provided by physics and chemistry is one of the highest human achievements. It defines an important aspect of what it means to be human. Physics and chemistry are quintessentially humanistic disciplines. They belong in the curriculum of every university. The current attack on the teaching of basic sciences in the state colleges and universities in Maryland is without precedent.

Like chemistry and physics, theater belongs in every university worthy of the name. Unlike the physical sciences, whose economic value to the state is clear, theater would appear to exist in a world beyond economic justification. But cultural institutions attract and keep business and industry. On economic grounds alone, then, the elimination of theater at UMBC would be a mistake. Further, the internationally renowned UMBC theater program is a cultural asset from which every person in Maryland can benefit.

There is more to a university than a balance sheet, and therefore there is more on heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in the regents' philosophy. The intellectual and cultural tradition of our civilization is deeply bound up in the theater, from Sophocles to David Mamet, from "Antigone" to the "House of Games." Theater defines the culture, exposes its problems, exorcises its demons. Do not imagine that you will benefit from depriving your culture of this avenue of expression.

J. David Rawn is a chemistry professor at Towson State University.

*

I am not so much angry as I am heartsick at some of the proposed cuts in the programs at UMBC. The theater department is one of the best in the country as measured by its outstanding performances year after year. The department's faculty and the plays it has produced have won some of the most prestigious awards available in this country. Both the university community and citizens of the state will lose a treasured resource should this program be cut.

I hope it isn't true that the classics department is also on the chopping block. This department began when the university opened, and its single faculty member, Walt Sherwin, taught several sections each of Latin and Greek to handfuls of students. Today the department ranks with the best.

I'm sure the Board of Regents used criteria in reaching their decisions, but I can't imagine what the regents could have used to arrive at such draconian measures. The significance or value of programs offered by universities cannot be measured by the same criteria that are used to evaluate manufacturing or commercial enterprises. There is much more to be considered than cost effectiveness or the "bottom line."

If this proposal goes through, I would not want to be responsible for recruiting good faculty at UMBC, as I did with great enthusiasm in the years when I was dean and department head.

-- David T. Lewis David T. Lewis is a retired professor of sociology at UMBC.

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