Physics at CUNY II: The Initiative for Theoretical Sciences

There has been a worrying development in the CUNY Physics Ph.D. program.

First, some background:

The City University of New York is an unusual system, especially in how the Ph.D. programs are structured. Like many systems, we are a set of affiliated institutions, called Colleges, granting associates, bachelors and masters degrees, under an umbrella administration. Most Ph.D’s, however, are granted through the Graduate School and University Center (the Graduate Center or GC, for short), which is in a beautiful building in midtown. The Physics Ph.D. program allows CUNY faculty to apply for status at the Graduate Center, which gives them the opportunity to teach classes to and advise Ph.D. students. Unlike some fields, like Math, Physics has no department at the GC. What is at the GC is the office of the Physics Ph.D. Program. A brave faculty member functions as Executive Officer there, with a Deputy EO or two to help out. Most of the first and second year graduate classes are taught at the GC.

Having set the stage, I’ll tell you what is freaking people out:

About five years ago, something called the Initiative for Theoretical Sciences (or ITS) was started at the GC. It is largely a physics initiative, at least for now. In principle, a new academic program is great news for science and scientists. There is some concern as to how it is being implemented.

I see three aspects of the ITS: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

First, The Good. The ITS has brought interesting workshops and seminars to the GC, primarily in theoretical biological and condensed-matter (including statistical) physics. I can’t speak for most who have been involved, but I attended a workshop on entanglement a year and half ago and learned some things. The GC wants to raise its research profile, which certainly is a good thing.

Now for The Bad.  Physicists are being hired, ostensibly in areas close to neuroscience, but there seems to be no coherent plan for developing the program. It seems that neuroscience, a sexy topic these days, is the main focus, but there seems to be no curriculum development for Ph.D. students. Some of these physicists seem to be primarily string theorists. Members of the Ph.D. Program are expected to approve their appointments. This way of hiring may be consistent with whatever by-laws or rules are in place (although I don’t know if this is true).

So what is the problem? Isn’t hiring good people unequivocally a good thing? Well, no. A new research group can’t be formed by just hiring senior people. A research group must be grown, not simply appointed. There must be a coherent scientific vision. There has to be a plan as to how the faculty will work with postdoctoral associates and students. Otherwise the group deteriorates into separate entities, each of whom may do things of value, but independently of the others. This is not creating a group, but merely adding lines. I fear the ITS faculty, seeing the lack of coherence will simply revert to whatever they did before (string theory or whatever).

Finally I turn to The Ugly. There has been positive interaction between the ITS and some of the faculty, but the Graduate Center Administration has no interest in feedback. They seem to think they know how to grow a research program with no input from local faculty. This is a mistake – you can’t start a car company without knowing something about cars. We are expected to approve any appointments to the Ph.D. Faculty, but we are regarded as irrelevant.

I want to temper this screed with an admission – there is a lot happening here I don’t know about. I may be admonished for criticizing a new program, without knowing the details. But that is exactly the problem – nobody on the faculty knows the details.

In conclusion, I hope the ITS succeeds. I hope they have outlined a plan of future research activity. I hope they stay together as a productive group. In short, I hope I am wrong.