When my conservative friends howl in outrage about state employee unions are running the asylum or the cushy life of tenured professors in the academy, I generally take it with the proverbial grain of salt. I agree that the system needs reform but for the most part, theirs is an exaggerated view of a complicated issue.
But even by those standards, the case of a Central Connecticut State University professor who can’t stay out of jail but hasn’t been fired yet is baffling on its face. And even more troubling is the impact that the state employee union contracts can have on open government.
The case of poetry professor Ravi Shankar is by now well known to news junkies in Connecticut and elsewhere. Shankar has amassed a rap sheet that makes university administrators cringe. In the span of fewer than 18 months, he has been jailed five times — and sometimes convicted — on several charges, including rear-ending a car and leaving the scene of the accident, credit card fraud, drunken driving, and violating probation.
Last year, the Board of Regents gave Shankar a promotion to full professor and a raise while he was sitting in jail in pretrial confinement after violating probation — a fact of which the university administrators who approved the promotion say they were unaware.
In obvious embarrassment, the regents considered rescinding the promotion but were stymied by the union contract stipulating the code of conduct clause does apply to criminal conduct taking place away from campus.
As I have written before, this is absurd. Educators — even college professors — are role models. We should not expect them to be perfect any more than we should expect journalists like me to be perfect. But I do think it’s fair to ask that we stay out of jail.
It’s one thing for a teacher or professor to get nabbed for a single DUI or even punching an adversary in the nose. But it’s quite another thing to be arrested and booked five times in a year and half, with no sign that the misbehavior is going to let up.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Shankar is a good teacher who has inspired others to enjoy poetry. But we don’t know that for sure because state university professors’ evaluations are exempt from state Freedom of Information laws. Indeed, yet another state law allows union contracts to supersede state law in general.
When confronted with the idea that perhaps off-campus criminal conduct should be a factor in the employment decisions state universities make for their professors, both Shankar, an Asian American, and the union that represents him essentially tried to change the subject to race.
In a rambling op-ed he wrote for The Courant in July, Shankar acknowledged “a concatenation of bad luck and even worse judgment,” but then proceeded to indict the entire criminal justice system for its racial disparities and suggested the system does a better job at making criminals better criminals than it does in the area of rehabilitation. All true, but what does this have to do with his case? He did not say, except to suggest he was “a pawn in someone else’s chess game.”
Shankar and his union bosses had obviously coordinated their talking points. Vijay Nair, the chief negotiator for the faculty union, said in a memo to members earlier this month that “The [Regents] proposal, if adopted, would have resulted in introducing discriminatory and racist practices in the evaluation process.”
So by that logic, no academic employer should consider an off-campus criminal record in the hiring and evaluation of anyone because the system is flawed. To do so in the case of a racial minority is, ipso facto, a “discriminatory and racist practice.” Got that? It is a curious argument to make in the case of Shankar since Asian Americans have the lowest incarceration rates of all racial groups, including whites.
Shankar was scheduled to return to court last week in Middletown on five pending charges that include allegations of shoplifting from Home Depot and leaving the scene of an accident.
It’s starting to look like the only way officials at Central can rid themselves of Shankar is if he is sentenced to enough jail time to prevent him from actually showing up to class and doing his job. Even then, as a full professor he might quality for a sabbatical and write a book about his experiences. Nice gig if you can get it.
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