What’s a college president to do with a professor who keeps getting arrested in his spare time? And if a professor is disciplined in connection with his job, should students and the public be able to find out?
At the regional Connecticut State Universities, the answers to those questions will soon be sorted out either by an arbitrator or through contentious contract negotiations currently taking place with the faculty union.
The authority college leaders have to factor in a professor’s criminal record when determining whether they deserve to be fired or given a pay raise has become an issue as Ravi Shankar – a poetry professor at Central Connecticut State University – continues to stack up arrests and convictions.
Last year, the Board of Regents for Higher Education gave Shankar a promotion to full professor while he was in jail at the Hartford Correctional Center – a move that helped boost his annual salary from $83,200 to $96,900. That was the fifth time Shankar had been locked up – in connection with two convictions – in 15 months. Shankar has been convicted of offenses that include driving under the influence, giving a police officer someone else’s license after getting into a collision and providing a false statement to authorities in a credit card fraud scheme.
Shanker is scheduled to be back in court Thursday morning in Middletown on five pending charges relating to his alleged involvement in shoplifting from Home Depot and leaving the scene of an accident.
Facing scrutiny, the public system’s governing board considered rescinding Shankar’s promotion but backed off when it became clear that the Code of Conduct in the current labor contract with the union that represents faculty does not provide for consideration of a criminal record for incidents that take place off campus.
“That record cannot be used under the current contract for any disciplinary procedures or any decisions on continued employment or tenure,” Regents spokesman Michael Kozlowski said during an interview. “Recent events gave rise to a review of all of those things in the context of the collective bargaining agreement.”
When the regents proposed during the ongoing negotiations with the union that convictions be allowed to be considered in employment decisions, the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors balked. Union leaders worry certain faculty would be unfairly impacted since the criminal justice system is disproportionately filled with minorities.
“The BOR proposal, if adopted, would have resulted in introducing discriminatory and and racist practices in the evaluation process,” Vijay Nair, the chief negotiator for the faculty union, wrote his members last week.
Shankar, who did not return phone calls from The Mirror for this article, pointed out this disparity in an opinion piece he wrote for the Hartford Courant last year.
“Justice is not color-blind: The most striking anecdotal fact of the five jail stints I did between May 2013 and July 2014 is that most of the faces around me were black or brown, Hispanic or African American. There were a smattering of white inmates and I was one of very few Asians. The disparity was glaring,” he wrote. He went on to justify his promotion. “When you are a pawn in someone else’s chess game, the facts cease to matter: When news of my promotion came to light, everyone from newspaper columnists to state senators called for my head in a mad rush to judgment…Nowhere in the news coverage were the salient details of why I was promoted, though I would be glad to make this public.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which has the authority to investigate employers for discrimination, reports that using a conviction in an employment decision is allowed, but it provides guidance to help ensure those records are used fairly.
But union leaders for the faculty at the state universities are opposed to allowing any criminal conviction that has no relationship to an employee’s job performance to be used in making employment decisions.
“If if does not impact my employment, then generally speaking, that should not be something I should be disciplined for,” said Nair during an interview.
But because there is no language in the current contract dictating how an employee’s off-campus criminal behavior can be used, the issue remains unresolved.
Union leaders say that college officials have backed off their proposal to be allowed to take convictions into account in employment decisions, but the spokesman for the public college system would not confirm that is the case.
Regardless of where the contract negotiations end up, the issue may soon be resolved by an arbitrator, because the union has filed two grievances against the university over how Shankar has been treated.
The details of those grievances – and whether the university’s decision to put Shankar on unpaid administrative leave this fall had to do with something that happened on campus – will never become public, however.
While the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled last month that state law makes college employees discipline files public, another state law allows for a union’s contract to supersede state law, including the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The union’s contract with the Board of Regents does just that by specifically forbidding faculty discipline records from being released publicly without the employee’s consent.
“You can bargain away the public’s right to know,” said Colleen Murphy, the executive director of state Freedom of Information Commission, a state watchdog agency that enforces Connecticut’s public disclosure laws. “It’s bothersome.”
The regents have proposed making discipline records public in the contract, and it is unclear whether the union supports such a change.
“That’s a pending issue. I cannot comment on that,” said Nair.
The Freedom of Information Commission’s efforts to persuade state leaders to change the law so that union contracts cannot override public disclosure laws have gotten nowhere.
“This is something that ought to be looked at. We didn’t really get any traction on this,” said Murphy. “We have to look at it as, ‘Oh, you can just write a new exception into the FOI law into a contract.’”