Legislators Considering Bill Prompted By Ravi Shankar Case [Courant]

February 11, 2015

By Kathleen Megan – Hartford Courant
The legislature’s higher education committee heard testimony Tuesday for and against a bill that would enable universities and colleges to take into account a faculty member’s criminal history before any promotion is given.

The bill is aimed at preventing a situation like the one that happened last year when Central Connecticut State University promoted Ravi Shankar from tenured associate professor to full professor even though he was spending weeks in jail at the time.

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“I don’t personally like to have to tell a constituent that their taxpayer dollars are being spent on people who have been arrested multiple times, but that’s me,” said Rep. Gail Lavielle R-Wilton, one of those who testified. “The accountability here lies with the Board of Regents and with the university and so if they are going to make a decision to promote someone who is in jail, who has convictions … maybe they have good reasons, but they need to be accountable.”

Diomedes Tsitouras, executive director of the UConn Health Center’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, didn’t necessarily object to the purpose of the bill, but objected to how it would be carried out: “I think it’s problematic to start mandating certain language to be put into collective bargaining agreements.”

The bill would require that any collective bargaining agreement entered into after October 1, 2016 include provisions enabling colleges and universities to require a faculty member to submit, at any time prior to promotion, to a state and national criminal history records check. It would also enable the college or university to discipline a faculty member for any criminal conduct, up to and including firing.

Sen. Kevin Witkos R-Canton, who introduced the bill and is a member of the higher education committee, said he did so because, “I was just so shocked that they would grant him full professorship while he was in jail,”

Witkos said the bill grew out of conversations with the Central Connecticut State University President Jack Miller and Board of Regents for Higher Education President Gregory Gray who told him that promotion decisions are based on what happens within the classroom and on scholarship and publications.

Witkos said that he was informed that Shankar’s criminal record was widely known, but that the union’s collective bargaining agreement required that the decision be based only the professor’s teaching and scholarship — not on any outside factors such as a criminal record.

Sen. Roberta Willis D-Salisbury and co-chairwoman of the higher education committee said, “Obviously, we need to address whatever the process was that they went through … that they could not look at this background in the promotion.

“I think we have a responsibility to the students to ensure that,” Willis said.

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Willis emphasized that she’s not talking about traffic violations, but more serious criminal transgressions.

In 2011, Shankar was convicted for a credit card fraud scheme, and later, of drunken driving. He then violated probation and ended up in prison for a total of three months, served in short stays, so he could continue to teach.

In December, he was arrested again, on charges of evading responsibility by leaving an accident scene; operating a car while his driver’s license was under suspension; and driving without insurance. His attorney could not be reached late Tuesday to update the status of those charges.

Witkos said legislators will likely sharpen the language of the bill to ensure that it specifies that legislators are targeting serious crimes.

A statement from Michael Eagen, UConn’s director of faculty and staff labor relations office, that pre-employment criminal checks are “an important element” of UConn’s effort to create a secure environment, but that faculty are not required to undergo additional criminal background checks as a condition for promotion.

He said such a requirement could “occasionally identify an employee who had been convicted of a crime that had not been reported to, or detected by, appropriate university officials.”

He added that conducting such checks would pose additional cost and administrative burdens.