Jay Pulli's Physics Today Controversy...

or why MIT might not call me this year for a donation - updated May 8, 2000

What's this about?

I rarely write letters to the editor. I rarely read letters to the editor. Most of the time when I read them, I say to myself "this person really needs a girlfriend/boyfriend". My other generalization is that there are just too many printed words. I've cut way back on my scientific journal reading, just because I don't have the time to keep up. The only reason I get Physics Today is that it comes with my AGU membership. And since my wife is also a member of AGU, we get two copies a month. I try to be good and at least skim through it in case there's something interesting and comprehensible, like the Sept. 1999 article about how we localize sound.

So when my September 1999 issue of PT arrived, I gave it a quick look. One thing that caught my eye was a full page ad from the physics department of MIT, soliciting applications for five tenure track positions. Gee, I didn't think anyone was hiring physics faculty members these days; all the money seems to be in the EE, CS, and MBA departments. But upon reading the ad, it struck me that teaching was relegated to a very small part of the faculty solicitations. Hey, I'm not niave, I know how big grads schools work, that it's publish or perish, and what really counts is how much grant money you bring in. (Did you read about the MIT graduate who recently gave $100 million to the school?) But this ad just seemed to flaunt the point that faculty research was top billing. (We'll leave teaching to the foreign teaching assistants. No, they didn't write this!) So I broke my rule and sent off an email to Physics Today. Here it is....

September 4, 1999

Letter to the Editor

I was just looking over the latest (Sept '99) issue of Physics Today and couldn't help noticing the full page ad on page 97 from the Physics Department of my alma mater, MIT. The ad solicits applications for five tenure track positions at the Assistant Professor level. As I read through the ad, a pattern emerged. Quoting...

Astrophysics - ".... expected to conduct research, supervise graduate research, and teach courses at all levels."

Atomic and Optical Physics - "... expected to lead an independent research program and to teach and supervise graduate and undergraduate students."

Experimental High Energy Physics - no mention of teaching

Experimental Condensed Matter Physics - no mention of teaching

Experimental Gravitational Physics - "... expected to play a leadership role in either the analysis of data from LIGO or in the continued development of the faculty, and to teach at the undergraduate and graduate level."

The pattern that stands out to me is the secondary or not even stated role of teaching in these faculty positions. Obviously the faculty research will involve students, but the clear message I get from the ad is that the primary role of the university is to conduct research, and the secondary role is to teach students.

What a shame.

Jay J. Pulli, PhD, MIT '83
Senior Scientist
BBN Technologies
1300 N 17th St, Suite 1200
Arlington, VA 22209

PT Publishes my Letter...

To my surprise, they actually read it and wanted to publish it. Here's the somewhat shortened version by the editor (what was published in the November 1999 issue of Physics Today)...

Letters Editor

Looking over the September issue of PHYSICS TODAY, I was struck by the full-page ad on page 97 from the physics department of my alma mater, MIT. The ad solicits applications for five tenure-track positions at the assistant professor level. As I read through the ad, a certain pattern became clear to me. Of the five positions advertised, three mention teaching as secondary to research, and the other two make no mention at all of teaching. Obviously the faculty research efforts emphasized in the five write-ups will involve students, but the clear message I get from the ad is that the primary role of the university is to conduct research, and the secondary role is to teach students. The same message is evident in many other faculty position ads in PHYSICS TODAY and elsewhere. What a shame.

BBN Technologies
Arlington, Virginia

Some Responses...

And to my surprise, some people actually read the letter and took the time to write to me. For example...

Dear Dr. Pulli,

I fully agree with your letter in Physics Today, Nov.1999, p. 81. In American/Canadian university system undergraduate students in physical (and some other) sciences are largely considered as inevitable nuisance. The only real interest in them comes as potential cannon meat or grad.programs, to work as research slaves, for the most part, of course. In reality only gransmanship counts. I have written several letters and articles to this effect and while some of them got published here and there (mostly, in local press), none were accepted by Physics Today. Grantsmanship establishement does not want to hear these things. Your letter is a fortunate exception. I won't be surprised if somebody will get a kick at PT office for letting it slip through.

Anyway, congratulations.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander A. Berezin, Professor
Department of Engineering Physics
McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L7
tel. (905) 525-9140 ext. 24546


Dear Jay Pulli,

Three cheers for your letter to the editor of Physics Today. Your point about the lopsidedness of the job ads is well taken. We do indeed overemphasize research at the big universities, to the detriment of teaching. I've written similar letters, that I will mail to you at the
address given in your letter.

Art Hobson

Art Hobson, Professor Emeritus of Physics,
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701.
phone 501-575-5918, fax 501-575-4580, ahobson@comp.uark.edu

I sent email to some friends about this issue, asking if MIT would now firebomb my car. Here's a response...


Naw, MIT wouldn't spring for the travel expense.

One of the reasons that I went to Oakland University was Roger's recommendation to not go to the Univ. of Michigan. He said that things were too big and all undergrad classes were taught by grad students with the exception being lectures on the professor's hot topical interest. I guess some senior level special studies, too.

Oakland, at least in the first ten years of its life, had professors (full, assoc., assist.) teaching even problem sessions. The only place grad students were used were in calculus problem sessions. The professors even taught labs. I could even talk with them as a lowly sophmore as they walked across campus.

Maybe we should have the small colleges be the bachelor and masters institutions and the MIT's of the country be the masters and PhD institutions. That is the way the medical world is done. Get pre-med locally and then apply to a medical school, etc. To make PhD's more like medical doctors they should go through an internship at another university or national lab then go out and get a job. Of course that is what is done at some programs with grad students being the 'slave' of the research professor.

Ah, well, "And So It Goes"

Walter Turpening

In the end...

So who knows, maybe I should walk quietly past the physics building the next time I am on campus. Send me a comment if you like.

MIT Writes Back.....

In the April 200o issues of Physics Today, MIT addressed my letter in a note on page 90 titled Faculty-Position Ad's Underemphasis on Teaching Is MITigated. Here it is....

In his letter in your November 1999 issue (page 81), Jay Pulli chastises MIT's physics department for having failed to emphasize teaching in its Physics Today advertisement for faculty positions. His criticism is well placed, and it is clear that we made a mistake by overlooking the importance that the department gives to teaching. As Suutnick-era physics professors retire, and we begin the process of renewal in the department, we place a very high value on talent for and dedication to teaching, especially at the undergraduate level, when hiring faculty members. Furthermore, as the department head interviewing faculty candidates, I stress the critical role their teaching record will play in the promotion and tenure process.

Marc Kasner

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

And People Write to Me About MIT's Response.....

Good deal. You got them with their real outlook in the initial advertisement. The Department Chair wants faculty who can bring in government contracts, and other funds. That ability can surmount any deficiency in teaching or in real advancement of knowledge.