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.

Physics at CUNY I: Mighty Monkeys Climbing Ropes

I could have entitled this post “Research at CUNY”, but I prefer to speak for my own field.

I am thankful to have a long-term academic job, with tenure. I am ecstatic that I live in New York City (if only I could arrange for a geologic event to make some real mountains here without hurting anyone. I would need a promotion of some kind). I appreciate that I have a reasonably big office (which I manage to clutter, despite its size). I am glad that I like many of the students I know (or have known).

What I’m not glad about is the research environment. Before any released time, the CUNY contract mandates 21 hours of teaching per year. This is quite reasonable for an institution where faculty research is a sideline, but is too heavy a burden for those, like me, for whom it is a passion. That descends to 18 hours, for those who publish (still 9 contact hours per week, per semester). Committee work helps further. Advising each Ph.D. student results in a minuscule further reduction of 0.6 hours per semester. External grants result in no teaching reduction at all.

Don’t pity me. I am productive, despite the yoke. If you look at the last post, I even display a certain amount of pride in my work. I don’t write a lot of papers, but I think that what I do write is significant. The problem is that, like the proverbial monkey climbing the rope slung over the pulley, I have to drive myself very fast to ascend.

To those who say “your job is to teach, not do research,” I beg to differ. I actually love to teach (I really enjoyed my great students in relativity and quantum mechanics last semester). Furthermore, I find that my teaching has had a positive impact on my research. But as a scholar, I have the responsibility to give the community something new to teach in fifty years. If there is no research, scholarship recedes into a medieval state, in which we are monks and nuns, copying the same illuminated texts over and over and over and over and over…

CUNY can’t make up its mind as to whether it should be a real university or a teaching-only institution. It seems that it wants to be both, which is not feasible.

I won’t point fingers at particular administrators (or faculty) at CUNY Central or Baruch College (not in this post, anyway). Is that because I am a nice guy and don’t want to name names? Or is it because I am a chicken and frightened of these folks? Nope – it’s because everything is negotiated in secret first, then rubber-stamped. By keeping the decision-making in the dark, we never know who to give credit to or who to blame.

Other people at public universities will probably agree with what I say. Undoubtably the problems begin with government more than university administrations. The evolution of federal and state tax structure has stretched the budgets of public universities incredibly thin. They respond by making life harder for faculty, like us, or charging so much tuition that they are rapidly becoming private schools. The latter phenomenon is helping to deprive those students without upper-class backgrounds of a university education.

Since I came to Baruch, nearly a quarter of a century ago, we have grown quite a bit (though nowhere near enough). Two of our faculty came as RIKEN Fellows, which is a big deal (we get first-rate faculty essentially for free, for the first five years). Look at our publication record, if you disagree. I’ve seen quality growth in other departments around CUNY. CCNY, the boot-camp of science, has always had a great department, but the New York City College of Technology, Lehman College, The College of Staten Island have all become very good places (Hunter, Queens and Brooklyn will complain. Yes, those are good too).

Our physics is mighty. It sure would be nice to see some appreciation around here.