Extracurricular Criminal

Amid calls for his termination, Central Connecticut State suspends professor who's had skirmishes with the law -- even though none of the crimes and alleged crimes relate to teaching or publications. When professors break the law, what should a college do?

August 10, 2015
Ravi Shankar

A professor finds himself in trouble with the law several times within the span of a few years. But none of those crimes and alleged crimes relate directly to his teaching or publications, and he’s apparently a good professor -- at least good enough to have been promoted to full professor last year while he was serving a jail sentence. But some -- included one lawmaker -- want him fired. So what’s a college or university to do? When do personal transgressions become professional ones?

Central Connecticut State University is facing those questions and others regarding Ravi Shankar, a tenured professor of poetry who’s been arrested on various charges since 2011. Those include credit card fraud, driving under the influence, and in a separate incident, driving with a suspended license and evading responsibility. (The first two cases resulted in convictions; the latter two cases are pending.)

Most recently, late last month, Shankar was arrested for shoplifting at a local Home Depot. Police reports say he tried to return some $1,300 worth of merchandise he hadn’t purchased for store credit. He was charged with third-degree larceny and released on bond. He’s due in court Wednesday.

In a recent editorial, the Hartford Courant argued that Shankar should be terminated if he’s convicted on the newest set of charges.

“Tenure gives a professor the right not to be fired without just cause,” reads the editorial. “That's fine, but if Mr. Shankar's string of run-ins with the law do not constitute just cause, what does? Teachers are role models for young people -- and his behavior has shown him to be an extremely poor model.”

A local lawmaker, State Senator Kevin Witkos, a Republican from Canton, went further in a letter to Jack Miller, Central Connecticut State’s president. Witkos wants Shankar terminated immediately, according to the Courant.

“By his continuous disregard for the law, Mr. Shankar has repeatedly demonstrated that he is unfit to discharge his professional responsibilities,” wrote Witkos, who authored an unsuccessful bill earlier this year that would have allowed states colleges and universities to do background checks on faculty members prior to promotion. “This professor is harming the reputation of all in the teaching field and quite frankly the administration by its inaction to date.”

On Friday, a university spokesman said that Shankar had been put on unpaid administrative leave as the university looks into his case. Shankar was reportedly allowed to serve a previous jail sentence bits at a time in order to continue teaching -- making it possible for him to be promoted last May while incarcerated. It's unclear if he's been suspended from work before now.

Shankar did not respond to requests for comment.

Mark McLaughlin, the university spokesman, said that Shankar’s American Association of University Professors-affiliated union contract does not mention criminal behavior in regard to university employment. But faculty members “are bound by the same university policies regarding, among other things, criminal conduct that is disruptive, violent or threatening, as all university personnel and students are,” he said.

According to general AAUP policy, an administration can dismiss a professor for cause after demonstrating his or her professional unfitness before a body of elected faculty peers. It’s unclear if Shankar received such a hearing before being place on administrative leave; McLaughlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the circumstances of his suspension.

When an administration seeks to dismiss a professor based on his or her criminal record, according to the AAUP, the key question for the hearing committee is whether being convicted of a crime is evidence that the professor is unfit to teach or do research in his or her field. AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure say that “adequate cause for a dismissal will be related, directly and substantially, to the fitness of faculty members in their professional capacities as teachers or researchers.” And dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members “in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights of American citizens.”

Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center and director of its Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance, and former general counsel for the AAUP, took a similar view.

A tax evasion conviction raises considerable doubt as to a tax law professor’s ability to teach or do research, for example, Olivas said. But for a history professor? Not so much.

“The crime has to be tied to your core academic professional competencies,” he said. “Beyond that, [adequate cause] also means moral turpitude, which traditionally means sleeping with students, taking bribes, behaving in a felonious manner, making threats to campus or trying to harm students.”

Olivas said he knew no additional details about Shankar’s case, but that when a professor in general seems to be unstable or in trouble, the onus should be on an administration to step in and see if the professor needs professional help prior to seeking dismissal.

“This has all the hallmarks of someone who’s wildly out of control,” Olivas said. “But no one’s said he’s missed class, or not met his obligations of meeting with students or getting students’ exams back in a timely manner. If all those things are in order, I’d say they’d have a high burden [of proof] before removing him.”

Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and professor of law emeritus there, said he only initiated three dismissals of tenured faculty members in his administrative career (at Virginia and elsewhere). Two were easy: blatant plagiarism and holding down two full-time jobs, respectively. The third turned out to be a “tragic mistake” when a colleague’s poor classroom performance turned out to be linked to a brain tumor.

Shankar’s case is inherently more difficult, he said, noting that AAUP’s “for cause” policy is very loosely defined. But, like Olivas, O'Neil said various crimes that don't relate to one's work don't automatically merit dismissal. 

“Such an open-ended proscription thus inescapably covers a vast range of possible criminal (or even civil) wrongs from a minor traffic offense to violent homicide -- most especially if such criminality inflicts injury or death on members of the immediate academic community,” O’Neil said via email. “Despite the disdain shown by the Courant editorial and others, Shankar's conduct probably falls toward the low end of that range. While (in the Courant's view) ‘his behavior has shown him to be an extremely poor [role] model [for young people]’ even a potpourri of embarrassing scrapes with the law would seldom warrant a tenured professor's dismissal.”

But at least one potential basis for dismissal -- demonstrated lack of competence -- is “relatively clear,” he said. So perhaps a “greater focus on direct interaction with students might warrant closer scrutiny than the aggregation of largely unrelated or peripheral transgressions.”


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