Labor committee fails to vote on professor promotion bill [JI]

May 18, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Journal Inquirer
HARTFORD — The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee failed to vote Tuesday on a bill that would have required background checks before the promotion of a professor, missing the deadline to weigh in on the proposal.

Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Peter A. Tercyak, D-New Britain, said he vowed to Sen. Gary A. Winfield, D-New Haven, to block the bill from the beginning because the legislature shouldn’t interfere with a matter that should be the subject of collective bargaining.

“He wasn’t killing that bill and he could not save that bill, I didn’t care,” he said. “I had agreed that I would kill that bill because it had to come to (the) labor (committee). I believe that it’s a legitimate function for collective bargaining, although I am not above inserting the legislature into collective bargaining sometimes.”

Winfield served as the Senate chairman of the committee until Sen. Edwin A. Gomes, D-Bridgeport, won a special election late February and assumed the post. Winfield no longer is on the committee, and Gomes couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Tercyak said he doesn’t believe that background checks should be required when university officials consider whether to promote a faculty member.

“The fight to have academic promotions based only on academic and scholarly and student-related concerns was important,” Tercyak said. “And before we chip away at that, I think we should be having a larger discussion at the academic level.”

But Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, said she still has concerns about the promotion April 2014 of Ravi Shankar from assistant to full professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain despite being in prison at the time.

“We still have concerns about what happened, the incident at Central, and the question is how can we ensure that that kind of an incident doesn’t happen again,” said Willis, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee that approved the bill in March. “And in that sense I feel it was unfortunate that we didn’t make some sort of statement, you know, legislation.”

Members of the Board of Regents for Higher Education said they were unaware of Shankar’s criminal history at the time of their vote, despite CCSU officials having knowledge.

Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, a ranking Republican on the Higher Education committee, also expressed disappointment that the labor committee failed to vote on a bill that he said protects college students.

“Indiscretions by professors should not be ignored,” he said. “The proposed legislation received bipartisan support in two other legislative committees. To not even take a vote on the bill is unacceptable.”

The Public Safety and Security Committee also approved the proposal, and the House referred it to the labor committee May 5.

Legislative rules give a committee one week to take action on a bill after a referral from the House or Senate.

Lawmakers could try to revive the proposal by attaching it to another bill via an amendment, but Willis said others have expressed concerns about infringing on collective bargaining rights and that the bill unfairly targets faculty.

“Even though I thought we addressed those concerns, apparently we hadn’t for everybody on the contracting issue,” she said.

Tercyak said that allowing university officials to make personnel decisions based on criminal records runs counter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society proposal and other efforts to help convicts rebound.

“It’s a very important principle about judging people on academic performance and at a time where our focus is on second chances and when we are realizing that the arrest records we’re helping people collect are ruining lives, I’m not going to casually go and say, ‘Hey, here’s another class of people we haven’t ruined their lives with arrest records yet. Let’s do that,’” he said. “It’s not for me.”

The bill also would have allowed college officials to implement punishment, including termination, for faculty members convicted of a felony, even if that employee weren’t seeking a promotion.

Tercyak said college students are old enough to not be influenced by the actions of their professors, and he questioned the impact that faculty members with model behavior have on students who drink or miss classes.

“This is the college and university level — shame on any young person who tries to pretend the difference between right and wrong unless it’s modeled appropriately at the front of the class.”

The Board of Regents considered rescinding its decision to promote Shankar after learning he was incarcerated in lieu of bond on a charge of violating probation at the time of its vote, but ultimately let him remain as a full professor pending a review that found 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. He is due back in court June 19.

Shankar’s criminal record dates to 2011 and includes convictions of making a false statement in the second-degree, reckless driving, and driving while intoxicated.