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    Posted July 12, 2015 by
    La Crosse, Wisconsin

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    The Face of Tenure in WI Provides Insights for the Nation


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Sunday signed a new state budget that weakens tenure for professors in the University of Wisconsin system -- previously codified by state law, and among the nation's strongest protections for professors. University tenure, typically granted after a period of several years, gives professors the contractual right to not to have his or her position terminated without just cause.

    The new budget turns tenure decisions over to the University of Wisconsin system Board of Regents, which is largely appointed by the governor.

    mediaman is a frequent iReport contributor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He is an IT Director at UW-La Crosse, but produced this piece away from his official position. He interviewed and photographed two students and five tenured professors for this piece.

    "I came away from this project with a much deeper understanding of the importance of tenure. Some people create negative opinions on tenure when they see negative examples. But if you take the time to really understand the tenure issue, you can fully appreciate why it is so important, both in Wisconsin and the nation."
    - dsashin, CNN iReport producer

    Perhaps in no other state has the issue of tenure reached a flash point so quickly as in Wisconsin. Faculty anger has reached a feverish pitch - unusual in the slower months of summer. As Governor Scott Walker travels around the U.S. on his presidential bid campaign, the state GOP-controlled legislature has pushed for legislation greatly reducing tenure protection, making it much easier to lay off faculty for any reason. In combination with unprecedented budget cuts to education, particularly to the University of Wisconsin System, faculty see a full assault on public education in progress.


    Some in the general public, see tenure as an ambiguous label, and consider it a job guarantee for faculty. Faculty and some students disagree, and see tenure as being essential to a high quality education. The idea of eliminating tenure is not a new one, but considering Wisconsin’s storied history of education and innovation, removing essential aspects of tenure through legislative action has been surprising to many. So what’s the true impact of tenure?


    To help understand tenure, this CNN iReporter interviewed a group of faculty to help put the issue into context. Two students, one from the U.S. and an international student from Saudi Arabia were also asked their opinion on tenure and education. The interviews were conducted off-campus, against a backdrop of environmental portraits to help “put a face on tenure.”


    Adrienne Loh, a chemistry professor of over twenty years says she loves to teach students, but today’s teaching environment makes it difficult. Leaning against a backdrop of books for her portrait, Adrienne commented, “What keeps me at a public institution in Wisconsin is that students don’t know what they are capable of. I’m helping them discover for themselves what they can learn and what they can do." They weren’t already poised to be great, but there was greatness in them. “What drew me from New York and Boston, was Wisconsin’s investment in education, its long standing reputation for thinking outside the box.”


    T.J. Brooks an economics professor, likes working with students because, “I like sharing and discussing ideas, and to take a student struggling with an issue, rephrase it and give it to them with new insights - then you see the lightbulb go on, and it’s the most gratifying moment.” As T.J. stood in front of a glowing neon sign with the words “Lousy Service” he wondered if the message signaled a bleak future for both education and business. He said, “Wisconsin faces a great challenge... We have a relatively older, lower income state. Our one way out of that is to keep younger, college-educated students here in the state and one way to do that is to have vibrant cities and innovative companies. Across the country if you can’t attract quality faculty to live in your city or town, that educational anchor is harder to maintain.”


    Susan Crutchfield, an English professor, was photographed donning a “Cheddarhead.” She came to Wisconsin and quickly learned about this state's well-deserved pride in its football team, and the excellent University system. What drew her here was, the “sense of mission from ‘The Wisconsin Idea’, a philosophy that the University's purpose is to improve the lives of everyone in the state. I fear that under the current state leadership what counts as improving people's lives is being very narrowly defined by the political interests of a few.”


    Concern for Wisconsin’s higher education is also expressed by students. Rebecca Steck from Platteville is attending UW-La Crosse as a political science and public administrator double major. She hopes to go on to law school. Rebecca posed in front of brick wall covered with the words “No Parking”- the graffiti serving as a metaphor Wisconsin may no longer be the place to “park” your academic aspirations. She explained, “Tenure is the process in which professors must prove they stay relevant in their fields of research and teaching. I think many people assume once a professor becomes tenured, they sit back and become lazy. Tenured faculty have to continue their research, and excel in their fields.”


    Yousaf Almazrou, an international student from Saudi Arabia, is sponsored by his country’s government to attend college. Yousaf, who provided a “GQ” pose for his portrait, sees education now being less valued in the state. At a legislative forum, he raised his hand and said, “I have traveled two oceans to come here to get a good education in Wisconsin. Now I only have to cross a river to go to a state where they value education and health care.”


    Georges Cravins, a long-time geography professor, posed in front of a billboard that said “open mic.” Georges said, “In show business, the microphone has special symbolic significance. In Wisconsin’s culture of shared governance, “everyone gets the mike” so all voices are heard on the critical campus issues. “Having the mike” on our campuses is a metaphor for the kind of due process and fairness that Wisconsin has always represented and exemplified. Having tenure provides faculty a voice, without retribution.”


    Brad Seebach, a human anatomy professor, posed in a black shirt against a black door- illustrating the potential for a dark future for, perhaps even in health care. “As a tenured faculty member, I can tell a student quite honestly what happens in the human body and I don’t have to worry about saying something true that may offend a local religious or political leader. You don’t want the political considerations of either conservatives or liberals to influence a diagnosis or treatment. You don’t want a doctor's or nurse's first inclination to be checking the political wind of the day.”

    And what about the future of tenure? Adrienne speculated, “We are not going to feel the loss of tenure or the education cuts in five years, but we are going to feel it in 10-15 years. It’s kind of like cancer, by the time you notice it, it’s hard to undo it. When we feel the effects of budget cuts, continual devaluing of education, and the dismantling of tenure…. by the time we feel it, it’s going to be very difficult to undo. We don’t live in ivory towers. We are just real people, we live in the community, and experience what real people experience in the community.” The question remains, will we recognize the face of tenure and its impact before it is too late?

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