MTU Physics Department History | 1967-1980

Growing Pains

Van Pelt characterized the change in name, in particular the change from being a “College” to being a “University,” as a recognition of existing facts. Once the change was made, however, the message became ‘now that we are a university, we should look like one.’ Pressure increased for all faculty to have a PhD and for them to be actively engaged in research. One could no longer hire new tenure-track faculty who did not already have a PhD. Soon the University was divided into colleges and schools—Physics belonging to the College of Sciences and Arts.

By the late 1960’s Stebbins began a search for his replacement as Physics Department head and ultimately announced his decision to hire Charles Mandeville, then at Kansas State. Mandeville was hired because the combination of his very strong research background and his no-nonsense personality was expected to aid in a rapid transition of the department from a role of principally providing service teaching to a department with strong, externally funded research of its own. Since Mandeville’s research specialty was in nuclear physics, and there was very little nationally competitive research already in the department, the department research emphasis became nuclear physics. Several new hires were made in the late 1960’s, all in the area of nuclear physics, including two of his Kansas State collaborators, Drs. Potnis and Agin, as well as several new assistant professors.

There was a strong contingent of the faculty who thought the department’s role should not change and this friction caused problems. Mandeville has been variously described by faculty who were in the department at that time with adjectives such as “boisterous” and “abrasive.” There is general agreement that Mandeville set high standards and was quite critical of those that did not meet them. He had little trouble finding fault with all the administrators and with many of the physics faculty, describing their activities as “unprofessional,” and he freely shared those opinions. Many of the new hires were ultimately denied tenure. Mandeville was ultimately relieved of his duties as department head in 1975—the department continuing “headless” for the next several years.

Coan Book CoverMandeville had been writing, somewhat secretly, a fictional story during most of this time. His novel, “University,” was published at his own expense under the pen name Roger Coan in 1973. Were that it appeared earlier, the administrative friction might have been avoided. The novel is a story of unscrupulous and incompetent university administrators who use the system to get to the top. Had Stebbins been able to read the inside jacket cover, perhaps he would have made a different choice for department head. The description of the author reads:

Dr. Roger Coan holds B.A., M.A., and PhD. degrees and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He wears the gold key of that scholastic honorary society. During the past thirty years, he has made efforts to carry on teaching and/or research as a faculty member on six different campuses in various parts of the U.S. Having often experienced frustration of his efforts to achieve in constructive fashion, he has withdrawn to a secluded sanctuary to set down in a series of works the demoralizing story of bureaucracy, banditry, blundering, bickering, and backbiting in the great universities of the land.

While this description is about the fictional “Roger Coan,” it also appears to be an accurate description of Mandeville if one regards Houghton as the “secluded sanctuary.” A second book in the series never appeared. Some would say that Mandeville was hired to “shake up the department” and that job was certainly accomplished.

Keeling PhotoWith all the administrative troubles in the department, no new faculty hires were permitted throughout most of the 1970’s. The faculty leaving MTU, some retirements, and the movement of the geophysics program to geology resulted in a rapid decline in faculty numbers. The search for a successor to Mandeville involved noticeable infighting among the physics faculty. Roughly a dozen potential candidates were listed as having been interviewed, including several applicants from within the department. Ultimately an external candidate, Ian Shepard, was brought in to take the headship. Soon after his arrival, however, Shepard passed away due to illness. The department was then back looking for a new department head.

Throughout this time members of the department on several occasions had put forward Rolland Keeling as a possible choice. Keeling joined the faculty in 1960 as an associate professor and by 1963 was promoted to professor. He had a PhD, a decent but not overwhelming research record, was well-received by his students, and he tended to stay out of the department politics. However Keeling had not applied for the job. graph of faculty numbersWith the passing of Shepard, Keeling agreed to be “acting head” and after a time he was finally convinced to take the headship.

During the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s MTU’s president Ray Smith almost completely rebuilt the engineering buildings on campus. Hubbell hall was demolished in 1968, having been condemned and the State was not willing to come up with the funds to restore it. In its place rose the new MEEM building (now called the Raymond L. Smith Building). Around the same time several other new high-rises replaced the old. The bulk of college avenue, which ran between the Memorial Union and Hubbell Hall almost to the Sherman Gym,1 was removed in 1970 and the divided four-lane road was put in around the south side of the campus—at the expense of some private homes. Small sections of what used to be continuations of College Avenue and Hubbell Street remain just north of the new Administration building and just west of the Memorial Union Building respectively.2 Hence, while the Physics department was suffering from its growing pains, the rest of campus underwent a face lift.

lab carrel photoWith the large drop in Physics faculty numbers during the 1970’s, accompanied by a still-growing student population, meeting the teaching demands on the department became a top priority. Any research efforts in the department became low priority. During this time Dave Chimino developed his audio-visual tutorial introductory physics labs, allowing the labs to proceed with a significant reduction in the need for faculty to be in attendance. Chimino was later recognized by MTU as a “Presidential Professor” largely based on these efforts.

1. Sherman Gym was heavily remodeled in the early 1980’s and is now called Walker Arts Center.
2. At the time of this writing, there are still maps being produced, particularly web-based maps, which show both the old and new roads simultaneously.