SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - A longtime professor claims in court that the Art Institute of California fired him for objecting to its mandatory e-book policy, which charges students $50 to $75 more for courses that use e-books, many of which are not suitable for texts.
Terrence Michael Tracy sued Education Management Corp. and affiliates, The Art Institute of California - Orange County, and Argosy University of California, in Orange County Superior Court.
Tracy says he was a professor in Art Institute's Game Art, Media Art, and Animation Department at Santa Ana for 11½ years.
In 2010, Tracy says, the school began introducing electronic versions of textbooks, through a "mandatory e-book policy."
"As a relatively new and still developing policy, its terms and conditions were not well-understood or well publicized, such that professors (including plaintiff) and students alike often did not fully understand the effects of the e-book policy or its negative implications or consequences from an educational perspective," the complaint states.
In January this year, Tracy says, the Art Institute told him he had to use an e-book in his Background and Layout Design animation course, and had to choose from a list of texts selected by the school.
"Plaintiff was concerned by this notification that his course had been selected for compulsory participation in defendants' e-book program," the complaint states. "Plaintiff had taught the course for more than a decade without the use of an officially published textbook. Plaintiff had never previously designated a textbook for the course because, in the rapidly and ever-evolving field of digital animation, which increasingly relied on cutting-edge technical developments in the larger field of computers and computer science, no published textbook adequately addressed the subject matter of the course. Available published textbooks often suffered from a lack of comprehensive teaching of the subject matter; a failure to remain relevant, containing out-of-date materials, techniques, or approaches, due to rapid and continuous developments in the field; or a failure to provide practical and/or theoretical educational content that would adequately prepare students for careers in the field. Thus, in plaintiff's professional and academic opinion, none of the available published textbooks for the course were productive, useful, or appropriate for the students.
"Concerned about being compelled to select inadequate and/or subpar educational materials for his course in the form of a mandatory e-book and, more generally, about the ramifications of a widespread compulsory e-book policy not only for the teachers but more importantly for the students, plaintiff began to further research and investigate the specifics of defendants' e-book program.
Tracy says he found that students taking courses requiring an e-book were charged $50 for an "electronic resources fee," and $75 if the course required two e-books.
"Students were not allowed to opt out of the automatic fee, which was charged to their tuition accounts without further notice," the complaint states.
Tracy claims this policy prevents students from buying their books elsewhere, a right guaranteed in the student handbook.
"Plaintiff believed this was particularly detrimental to the students because, in the majority of cases, the same texts were available for purchase from other sources at prices significantly lower than $50, such that students were seemingly being forced to participate in an unfair price gouging scheme aimed solely at maximizing defendants' profits at the students' expense.
"Moreover, the policy effectively eliminated all other potential ways that students traditionally saved money on text purchases, such as buying used texts or trading texts after completing a course, because access to the mandatory e-books was limited to the particular student charged, in a single-use only basis."
Tracy claims that most students did not know they were being charged the extra fees, and that most professors "who had the mandatory e-book policy forced upon them believed that the e-books were not suitable, productive, or appropriate educational resources for the courses and thus, did not ever use the e-books in their courses."
"More disconcerting still, plaintiff discovered that if the student never logged on and activated the e-book account for the course, defendants retained a higher percentage of the profit from the sale of the e-book under the terms of their contract with the e-book publisher than if the student had actually activated and made use of the e-book account," the complaint states.
Tracy says he became increasingly "unsettled and uneasy" about the policy because it prevented professors from choosing appropriate texts to fit their students' needs, reduced the "quality of the students' educational experience," and unfairly burdened students with extra fees.
"In a day and age when students are regularly racking up astronomic levels of debt to pay for their educations, plaintiff perceived the e-book policy, which automatically imposed e-book fees on students (thus further driving up their tuition fees) without allowing them to opt out, and which deprived students of the ability to purchase their texts from other, substantially cheaper courses, to be unfair, unethical, and potentially unlawful," the complaint states.
Tracy says he voiced his objections to the e-book program to the Academic Dean, Alan Price, his supervisor Tom Baker, and the school President, Greg Marick, but they ignored him and told him to pick an e-book for his animation course.
Frustrated at the school's response, Tracy says, he filed complaints in July with several government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
"Plaintiff outlined all of his aforementioned concerns about the mandatory e-book policy in his complaints to these external government agencies, asking them to investigate the same, and sending copies of his complaints to Greg Marick and Tom Baker each time," the complaint states.
Tracy says Baker approached him on August 6 and 9 and told him that upper management wanted him to choose an e-book for his class.
Tracy says he refused to comply, but "suggest[ed] that Baker select an e-book for the course as a temporary solution to the dilemma (to which Baker was agreeable)," according to the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
But on Aug. 10, Tracy says, Marick called him to a meeting with the school's Human Resources specialist and gave him a letter threatening to fire him unless he complied with the policy.
"During the meeting, plaintiff, again, reiterated his concerns about defendants' e-book policy, including explaining his belief that it resulted in falsely or fraudulently utilizing federal and state funds (by way of the government-provided grants and loans to the students) through an unfair pricing scheme for the e-books, from which students were unable to opt out. Plaintiff stated that he believed the letter threatening his termination was a retaliatory attempt by defendants to silence his opposition to the e-book policy and to deter other faculty from coming forward and voicing opposition to the same. Plaintiff also believed the termination threat was a signal to him and his colleagues that defendants would not tolerate any type of questioning of their policies, without regard for whether these policies were in violation of the law and fair and ethical business practices," the complaint states.
Tracy says Marick rejected all of his alternative solutions to the problem, leading him to believe "his termination was a foregone conclusion."
"Deeply dismayed and emotionally distressed by defendants' conduct, plaintiff posted a message on his personal Facebook page regarding his imminent termination due to his unwillingness to comply with the ultimatum placed upon him to select an e-book under defendants' mandatory e-book policy. He explained the situation into which he was been placed and thanked his students and colleagues for the time shared with him during his teaching career at the school," the complaint states.
Four days after the meeting, the Art Institute fired him, "mischaracterizing his continued opposition to their e-book policy on the grounds that it was unlawful, unfair, and unethical as 'insubordination,'" Tracy says in the complaint.
He claims the school retaliated against him for objecting to its unlawful e-book program, refusing to participate in the program, and reporting the program to the government.
He seeks lost wages and benefits, and punitive damages for retaliation, wrongful termination, and emotional distress.
The complaint adds: "Upset at the termination of a valued professor who was deeply concerned about the educational welfare of his students and who had always scrupulously treated his students' education as paramount, in response, one student at the School began a petition to change defendants' mandatory e-book policy, out of similarly driven concerns about defendants' unscrupulous profit-driven policies. The petition has over 4,700 signatures."
Tracy is represented by Geniene Stillwell of Laguna Beach.