A professor finds himself in trouble with the law several times within the span of a few years. None of those crimes and alleged crimes relates directly to his teaching or publications, but some people want him fired.
So 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 has been arrested on various charges since 2011, Inside Higher Ed reported.
The charges include credit card fraud, driving under the influence and, in a separate incident, driving with a suspended licence and evading responsibility. The first two cases resulted in convictions, the last two charges are pending.
In a recent editorial, the Hartford Courant argued that Shankar should be fired if he is 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?”
A local lawmaker, state senator Kevin Witkos, a Republican from Canton, went further in a letter to Jack Miller, the president of Central Connecticut State. Witkos wants Shankar’s contract to be terminated immediately, according to the Courant.
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. Shankar did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.
Mark McLaughlin, the university spokesman, said that Shankar’s American Association of University Professors-affiliated union contract does not mention criminal behaviour 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 is unclear if Shankar received such a hearing before being placed on administrative leave.
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.
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, said: “The crime has to be tied to your core academic professional competencies…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 that 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.