U.S. Department of Energy poised to drop funding for Prairie View physicist’s work
By Lydia Lum
he U.S. Department of Energy is poised to drop funding for a Prairie View A&M University physicist’s work on a high-profile experiment because his president is blocking grants.
The dispute pits Prairie View A&M president Dr. Charles Hines against Dr. Dennis Judd, one of a small number of Black physicists in the nation. It could result in Judd leaving Prairie View, one of 35 historically Black colleges that has a degree program in physics.
Despite several Black Issues requests to a university spokeswoman, Hines did not respond to questions for this story.
But in an Aug. 1, 2001, letter to the energy department, Hines said he doesn’t plan on authorizing renewal of the next phase of a $678,000 peer-reviewed grant for Judd’s work on the high-profile BaBar atom-smashing experiment. The grant underwrites salaries and travel costs for Judd and a team of Prairie View researchers and students to work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, Calif. In his letter, Hines said university officials are investigating “very serious” problems associated with Judd’s grants on the BaBar work for the past decade. For example, Hines wrote, college officials are scrutinizing whether Judd’s previous management of DOE grants has resulted in Texas over-funding Prairie View for tenured teaching loads; whether it has impacted accreditation standing; or skewed the use of teaching credits.
“We will not continue participation beyond April 30, 2002,” Hines wrote. “My concerns surround compliance with law, rules and regulations governing academic operations. I have no negative comments or perceptions about the research. Should Dr. Judd decide to leave the university and seek to transfer this grant, he will have my full cooperation and support.”
To date, Judd says Hines has not approached him about his concerns over the grant’s management, adding that he would be happy to sit down with President Hines to discuss the matters. Judd says he will consider leaving the university if the grant is discontinued.
Energy department spokesman Jeff Sherwood says Hines’ letter effectively halts funding to Prairie View by next March. Otherwise, he says, a progress report would be due to the energy department from Prairie View in December, with funding continuation expected.
“But based on President Hines’ request, we will stop funding,” Sherwood says.
Judd, a 66-year-old high-energy physicist, is one of more than 600 researchers across several countries working on the BaBar experiment.
He says he believes his problems with Hines are in retaliation for his being a faculty senator for four years. According to meeting minutes since 1998, Judd was among senators considering a “no-confidence” vote against Hines. But at those meetings, Judd also credited Hines for trying to raise faculty pay as well as with raising $9 million for a new building for the architecture school, meeting records show.
Regarding the energy department funding, Judd contends there were no improprieties in grant management. “Why am I having all this trouble?” Judd wondered. “What a way to get rid of a tenured professor.”
The BaBar project has drawn wide acclaim. Among other things, the BaBar work has led to better understanding of the behavior of matter and antimatter. Researchers believe equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created when the universe formed millions of years ago during the Big Bang. If matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other. So researchers have asked: Why isn’t the universe a void?
By smashing protons and electrons together at very high speeds and energies at the Stanford accelerator, scientists have recreated conditions similar to those when the universe formed. Now, there is hardly any antimatter left. But there remains lots of matter in the form of stars, planets and people. So scientists have deduced that antimatter may “decay” more quickly than matter.
In many years of searching for antimatter that decays fast, physicists had found only one particle whose antimatter counterpart decayed faster. The BaBar experiment yielded discovery of a second such particle, a “B” meson, that showed similar characteristics.
When Judd joined Prairie View in 1987, he brought his research team from Batavia, Ill., home of the prestigious Fermi National Accelerator Lab.
Students such as Prairie View A&M senior Merlyn Pulikkathara say Judd has inspired her and other minorities to pursue teaching. “If you lose professors like Dennis Judd, you lose the heart of physics,” says Pulikkathara, whose family is from India.
Dr. Marj Corcoran was hard-pressed to recall any undergraduate Black physics students during her 21 years of teaching at Rice University in Houston, just southeast of Prairie View. However, two of Judd’s students have enrolled in Rice’s graduate programs in physics, she says. “Dennis’ part in BaBar is very small, but the opportunities for Prairie View students at BaBar are great,” Corcoran says. “This is indeed the big time. The value of the Prairie View program cannot be measured.”
An average of only eight Blacks graduate with doctorates in physics each year, according to the American Institute on Physics. Since the mid-1990s, six of Judd’s undergraduate students at Prairie View have earned physics doctorates.
Indeed, Xavier University in New Orleans was the only Black college among 4-year schools in the country that produced an average of more than 10 physics graduates a year in the late 1990s. The paucity of Black physics students, Corcoran and others say, is because of the lack of role models in academia. Judd, who earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, says he grew intrigued with physics concepts while living in a Pittsburgh housing project stargazing, tinkering with bikes and working on cars with his father.
Still, Hines and the presidents of other A&M campuses have final say over grant approval, says Dr. Jerry Gaston, deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University system. “If Dr. Judd decides to leave, it’s not going to be a happy day, but the A&M system does not monitor decisions like President Hines’,” Gaston says. “This disagreement has been brought to our attention. We are not going to second-guess President Hines. Thousands of decisions like this are made every week.”
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