Department of Physics

MTU Physics Department History | 1981-present

Group Photo 1978

Try, Try again

During the late 1970′s the University was determined to developed research and PhD graduate programs in the Engineering and Science disciplines. In fact, the lack of a strong graduate program in Physics, especially condensed matter physics, had been recently cited as a reason for the failure of a major proposal to the National Science Foundation for a Materials Research Laboratory. In 1980 University of Illinois Professor A. Barry Kunz was brought in as a consultant to help build such a program in the Physics Department. His involvement continued over the next few years as a visiting professor, and then as an adjunct faculty member. Kunz had previously been a candidate for the headship. Around the same time, a “Physics of Solids” option to the existing Metallurgy PhD program was started to help boot-strap the graduate program in physics.

Kunz, based on his previous decade’s experience at the University of Illinois, came with a very strong research record and a vision of what a strong research department was about. He was to spark the development of research in the department, centered on condensed matter physics, and was instrumental in helping to rebuild the physics faculty. The Institute for Condensed Matter Physics was formed as a vehicle to bring prominent physicists to campus, principally for a summer workshop, and Kunz was appointed its director.

1981 Symposium photo

In 1984 Kunz resigned his appointment at the University of Illinois to accept the position of Professor of Physics at MTU. About the same time, a “retirement incentive program” was put in place at MTU and a number of the older physics faculty, including Keeling, took advantage of it.1 Prof. Truman Woodruff, from Michigan State University, was brought in to replace Keeling as department head. While Woodruff had a strong research record, it rapidly became clear that being department head at MTU was not going to work out. He left within his first year. Kunz was then appointed head of the department.

The initial faculty rebuilding effort had principally centered on faculty in theoretical and computational areas, thus avoiding the need to find extensive start-up funds for equipment. The exception was Sam Marshall, a senior condensed matter experimentalist at Argonne National Labs, who was able to bring much of his equipment with him. Shortly after Kunz became head an effort was made to add several condensed matter experimentalists (with limited start-up funds). Through the early 1990′s, with only a couple exceptions, the faculty hires were either for computational physics or condensed matter experiment.

Early on Kunz pushed to get a PhD in the Physics Department and to enhance the computational resources. One result was the formation of the Center for Experimental Computation (CEC) out of the existing facilities in Fisher Hall. For a PhD program, several possibilities were considered including a joint PhD with Math and Computer Science and a PhD in Computational Physics. Ultimately a PhD in Applied Physics was pursued and that program began in 1987. Shortly thereafter (1993/94) the word “Applied” was dropped from the name, ‘in recognition of existing facts.’

Group Photo 1987

During the 1989-90 academic year Kunz was named Dean of Engineering. His faculty status was also transferred to Electrical Engineering so that it would be within the Engineering College. Suits, who was relatively junior and had just received promotion to Associate Professor, took over as Head of Physics for the next five years. Also during 1989-90 Physics Professor Max Seel became Dean of Sciences and Arts. Kunz’s appointment as Dean for “the other College” was certainly controversial across campus, and Suits’ appointment as Head was controversial within the department.

Grad Enrollment GraphThe graduate and research programs had grown dramatically from the early 1980′s through the 1990′s relying largely on the computational and condensed matter/materials experimental emphasis. By 1995 annual research expenditures by the department were close to one-half million dollars, there were almost 2 publications per faculty member per year, and about 30 graduate students enrolled.

In 1995, after an exhaustive external search, J. Bruce Rafert was appointed Department Head. Rafert came from Florida Tech with an astronomy and remote sensing background. With the original need for a condensed matter focus now long forgotten, he helped the department see the advantages of broadening its research emphasis. This resulted in a re-introduction of astronomy and astrophysics into the curriculum, and several faculty hires in atmospheric physics and in astrophysics were made. Meanwhile, MTU had decided to change its academic year calendar from a quarter system to a semester system. Thus, the entire curriculum was carefully revisited and restructured. In addition, in response to student demand, the Physics department initiated an interdisciplinary PhD proposal for a degree in “Engineering Physics.” That program began in 2001.

Research Funding GraphRafert became Dean of the Graduate School in the Fall of 2001 and Prof. Ravi Pandey, who joined the department in Spring 1989, took over the job of department chair. In the Fall of 2004, Rafert left for a position at Clemson University.

Now the department continues its strong commitment to undergraduate education in basic physics for all MTU students, which goes back over 120 years, with strong Physics and Applied Physics majors added roughly 60 years ago, and a growing graduate and research program with firm roots just about 20 years ago. Through that time the people have changed several times over, the emphasis of the University has changed, and of course the Technology which we use and teach has grown tremendously. Those of us currently on the faculty are lucky to be able to build on what was developed in the past and, with luck, hope to provide a springboard for the success of the as yet unknown MTU Physics faculty of the future.

Department Group Photo 2004


1. Some referred to this incentive program as “out the door in ’84!”



This entry was posted by Webmaster on Saturday, January 1st, 2000 at 1:06 am and is filed under History.

Department of Physics

Fisher Hall 118
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, MI 49931

Ph. 906-487-2086
Fax: 906-487-2933
Email: physics@mtu.edu

Michigan Technological University

1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295
906-487-1885

See a Problem?

Email the Webmaster

Protected by Akismet | Blog with WordPress