Scrutiny for professors? [Journal Inquirer]

February 12, 2015

Legislators want background check before college faculty promotions

Article as it appeared in the Journal Inquirer

Opponents of a proposal that would allow universities and colleges to conduct background checks prior to promoting faculty members said Tuesday that the bill is unnecessary, unfair to professors, and potentially costly.

They also told the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee that the state’s higher education institutions already consider an employee’s qualifications when deciding on a promotion and also have disciplinary procedures in place.

But members of the committee said they proposed the bill because members of the Board of Regents for Higher Education said they were unaware of a Central Connecticut State University faculty member’s criminal record when approving his promotion.

“Clearly what happened at Central was disturbing to a lot of us,” Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury and co-chairwoman of the committee, said.

The regents promoted Ravi Shankar to full professor last April when he was being held in lieu of bond while facing a charge that he violated probation.

Board members said they were unaware of Shankar’s incarceration, but a review found that its policies weren’t violated.

This bill, though, would require collective bargaining agreements finalized after Oct. 1, 2016, to include language allowing universities and colleges to conduct background checks when promoting faculty members.

It also would require language allowing the institutions to take disciplinary action when a faculty member commits a criminal offense.

Diomedes Tsitouras, executive director of the University of Connecticut Health Center chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the union opposes the bill because it goes against current university bylaws.

Tsitouras called the circumstances around Shankar’s promotion an “unusual situation. It’s not really useful for developing policy for the law.”

He also said that mandating the language as a part of future contracts makes the legislature a party to collective bargaining while taking away the unions’ right to negotiate the issue of promotion procedures and discipline for criminal conduct.

UConn Faculty and Staff Labor Relations Director Michael Eagen agreed in his written testimony, although he didn’t speak at the hearing.

He said the university handles off-duty conduct, including arrests, through its disciplinary process — including the recent termination of two professors for criminal convictions — and additional steps aren’t needed.

Eagen also said UConn has between 60 and 80 faculty promotion and tenure cases each year, and conducting background checks costs between $80 and $100 each.

Representatives from two other unions submitted written testimony sharing Tsitouras’ criticisms and raising concerns that professors could face discipline for minor transgressions, such as traffic violations. They also said an appeals process could become timely and costly.

But Willis said the higher education committee began looking at the issue after members of the regents board said they didn’t know of Shankar’s criminal history, despite the fact that others at CCSU were aware.

She also disagreed with Tsitouras’ notion that it would be unfair to hold professors to a higher standard than other state employees, who often face discipline only when criminal conduct is related to their employment responsibilities.

“There’s a major a difference, and that’s not every state employee having major contact with young people, students, and that is an issue and concern to the public and certainly the members of the legislature,” she said.

Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-Canton, also said he was concerned that professors who run afoul of the law would set a bad example for students, and he believed that warrants legislative involvement.
“Our purview on this committee is to make sure that student safety is not a subject of collective bargaining,” he said.

Witkos also said that contracts with professors unions are set to expire in the near future, prompting the need for the legislature to consider the step in time to include the language in the next agreement.

The Board of Regents initially took steps to revoke Shankar’s promotion, but ultimately let him remain as a full professor pending the review that ultimately found that the advancement followed protocol.
Shankar ultimately was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in prison for the violation of probation charge, but he now faces motor vehicle charges in two pending cases.

He was arrested again in December — police said he fled the scene of a one-car accident in Essex — and was charged with evading responsibility, failure to drive in the proper lane, driving with a suspended license, and driving without proper insurance.

He was charged Jan. 15 by CCSU police with driving with a suspended license. His criminal record dates to 2011 and includes convictions of making a false statement in the second degree, reckless driving, and driving while intoxicated.