Art Institute of California Orange County Art Institute of California Orange County

Animation Teacher Faces Termination For Refusing To Sell His Students Unnecessary Books

The standard of being a good teacher tends to be the same at most schools. It involves sharing one’s experiences and knowledge, pushing students to develop their existing talents and inspiring them to discover new ones, and preparing students to succeed in their chosen field. Animation artist Mike Tracy claims that his school, the Art Institute of California–Orange County, judges teachers by another criteria: how many e-textbooks each teacher sells to their students.

Tracy, who has taught drawing and digital painting for eleven years at AIC–Orange County, felt that his class didn’t require the textbooks he was suddenly being asked to sell and told the school that he would prefer to teach without them. Tracy’s reward for working in the best interest of his cash-strapped, loan-burdened students was a termination notice from the school.

Tracy explained the story and posted a preemptive farewell on his Facebook page:

As many of you know, I have been in a dispute with our school, the Art Institutes, for some months now, over their policy of mandatory e-textbooks in classes where their inclusion seems arbitrary, inappropriate and completely motivated by profit. In July I asked the US Department of Education, the California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education and WASC (our accrediting agency) to look into my concerns.  Since that time, the school and its parent company EDMC have escalated the pressure on me to select a book for a class I teach that I don’t think requires one. 

Today, the President of the school, Greg Marick, presented me with an ultimatum; either choose a book by Tuesday, Aug 14th or the company will terminate my employment for insubordination. My response, of course, is that I will not change my mind on this issue and that I’m determined to resist the policy however I can. I think this means that, as of this week, I will no longer be teaching at AI.

I want you, my students and colleagues to know that it has been my great honor and privilege to have worked with you over the last 11 years, and that I will miss the opportunity to work for you and with you. I have enjoyed my time as a teacher very much, but it appears as though it is now time to move on. Furthermore, you can count on me to continue the struggle that I have instigated on this issue, if only from the outside. Although it aint over till it’s over, it looks like a 99.5% deal, barring an 11th hour change of heart by the corporation, which would surprise me.

In his letter, Tracy mentions the school’s parent company EDMC–otherwise known as Education Management Corporation, a for-profit corporation that is 41 percent owned by Goldman Sachs and that operates over one hundred individual schools. The college giant gained notoriety last fall when it was sued by the United States Department of Justice and four U. S. states as part of a multi-billion dollar fraud suit. The case is still winding its way through the legal system.

The biggest losers in this story are the students at Art Institute of California–Orange County because Tracy is, by most accounts, regarded as one of the school’s finest teachers. As a show of support, his students–past and present–have launched THIS PETITION urging the school to “not force a teacher’s resignation, over unnecessary e-textbooks.” In just one day, the petition has been signed by over 500 supporters. The dozens of passionate comments in the petition portray Tracy as a solid and caring teacher, but spare few kind words for the school’s overall operation.

Tracy appears to have plenty of teaching experience at other southern California art institutions, and if he’s dismissed from the Art Institute, he’ll land on his feet at another school that will value his teaching over salesmanship skills. The bigger story though is the Art Institute of California’s alleged shakedown of its student body–if there is any truth to Tracy’s allegations, it may only be a matter of time before the school’s unethical behavior is exposed.

UPDATE: Animation author Ed Hooks explains why his popular animation book Acting for Animators is no longer available to thousands of Art Institutes students.

(Thanks, Karl Cohen)

  • feep

    That’s horrible. What kind of awful school would

    “Art Institute of”


  • To be fair, this is a problem that’s endemic in the American education system. College books are ridiculously overpriced as they are and the main reason why I always plump for the international version. It’s the same book, sometimes even printed in the US for a third of the price of the US editions. If that doesn’t smell like a rip-off, I don’t know what is.

    In this instance, one would have to conclude that there is some sort of revenue sharing deal in place, hence the requirement for textbooks. That brings up some ethical issues as far as I can see.

    Fair play to Tracy though. He’s proof that the problem isn’t the people, it’s the system.

    • Ryoku75

      Not only are textbooks greatly overpriced, but some of the companies release new editions every year with no real differences outside of a few re-arrangments, should you have an old edition you’ll have to work harder to keep track with the class.

      Is it any wonder why college students are so far in debt with loans?

      • Amy

        The problem with the e-books is that there is no alternative. Students enrolled in a course are automatically charged a set dollar amount (ex: $50) for the course’s e-book… even if the actual NEW, printed book retails for $15. So compare a $15 purchase with a $50 rental (the e-books last up to 5 years). Highway robbery. Goodbye student choice.

  • No surprises here. Non portfolio based colleges are simply money making institutions. Selling futures that do not exist to the young and impressionable should be a crime… one or two ebooks along the way seems like an absolute trifle comparitably.

    • It’s really no better at more selective schools, at least not anymore.

      More often than not you’re still compelled to buy thousands of dollars in textbooks, often set against further loans/aid/debt, and will only use a small percentage of those books regularly, some not at all.

      In fact, typically speaking, a lot of students can look at their book requirements and pick out which they actually need and which are just put down as something they’re forced to spend money on by their junior year. They’re just so accustomed to that being “the way it is” (or their parents are the ones fronting the cost) that it doesn’t occur to them to refuse or be upset about it, that’s just what they have to do in order to get ahead.

      Doesn’t help that, in many cases, college is less about the education you can receive and more about the future contacts you can make. Always bothered me that you pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for networking.

      • Ryoku75

        That and books are regularly changed so students can’t even save money by buying used.

    • SentPacking

      I don’t recall ever reading the word comparitably. Did you mean comparatively?

  • wgan

    they are actually telling students that being a good artist you also need to gear up with business sense, so one day you will appear on BW front page, yes?

    • or maybe in one of their ads on tv.

  • Daniel

    Good for him!

    If you’re studying animation, you only need two books. Similarly, I’m sure there’s a small list of core books for every medium.

    • And what would these two books be?

      • I’d say it’s just one for animation.

        Buy that book (everything is in there), pay for the internet for three years (Tutorials available to apply basic animation knowledge in any available software), work hard to learn how the pictures in your head can be best brought out. Save yourself about 30,000 quid

        No one ever asked to see my degree… which is good because I never got one… and look at me now!
        Now I DRIVE the school bus!

      • That Matt Guy

        @Mick, I would hire you if I could, but unlike you I wasn’t savy and wasted all my money on a Monkey Degree. But one day… when I get a succesful Kickstarter campaign going to start my studio… (Am I right? YuhYukYukYukYuk)

        Ahhh, the ass backwards validity of Kickstarter campaigns…“You don’t actually think they really spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?”

      • Zac


        With a Simpson’s reference to tie it all together, I love it.

        If you wanted to 100% specialize in animation I would agree with you. I actually had an instructor recommend that course of action to some of us. He said “drop out now and just learn it at home.”

        I actually went to an Art Institutes, and although I felt like I learned more from video tutorials and from other students than I did in the classroom, I was introduced to a wide range of skills, and not JUST animation. Which makes me a better generalist.

        All in all, the biggest thing I got from my “college” education was time. The time to learn the software and understand the workflow without having to work a full time job on top of it. The school itself didn’t directly teach me much, unfortunately.

    • Preston Blair and Richard Williams…lots of repeated info but thats it…oh
      and The Fountain Head and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanace.

  • Joseph

    I went to art institute in los angeles. I definitely felt a little bamboozled by the end of it :/ some people had it worse than me, at least i got a degree and a few business contacts out of it.

  • The US Government Accounting Office did an under-cover investigation of practices at for-profit colleges. The findings are hair-raising. Here’s the report:

    Is it any wonder that the California Student Aid Commission announced it is raising the bar for school Cal Grant eligibility, dropping 154 institutions from its roster including San Francisco’s Academy of Art University.

    There’s plenty of problems at public and not-for-profit private institutions and some for-profit institutions, such as Animation Mentor, deliver real value. But the bad apples are not just stealing tax-payer dollars, they’re doing real harm to students.

  • I really wish I was surprised by this… but I’m not.

    Having had a couple of pretty horrific experiences through my (now set-aside) college career, it’s pretty plain these days that you not only have to have a degree to get by in this society (doesn’t even matter if it’s a relevant degree, frankly), you have to attend an outrageously expensive school to GET that degree, just to avoid the added feeling of financial exploitation on top of an already outrageously expensive process.

    While I had to jump between a lot of these for-profit schools (happens in my situation, long painful story of being very poor and not eligible for many scholarships/grants), of the dozens of books I was forced to buy I’ve only ever opened maybe a handful on a teacher’s instruction. It’s not just THOSE schools, either! My fiance, while attending a rather well-considered school for education, spent well over $3000 on textbooks one semester… only one of which she used, and the cheapest one at that!

    It really does feel like post-secondary schools in America exist more to convince you that only money will get you ahead in life, rather than to educate and help their students develop. Starting to look safer to just self-teach and hope the quality of your work will outshine someone’s new degree.

    That’s never how it works, but at least that way you’re not digging yourself a financial grave that you’ll be living in until your 60s.

  • D

    As a person who once attended an Art Institute (The one in Vancouver) I can say what this teacher says is true. Many of my first year teachers were more pre-occupied with hawking e-textbooks than actually teaching me anything. I failed to learn the skills necessary to become a better animation artist and cartoonist. They monopolized my time talking about the text books and our reading for the semester, and all our so-called hands on work when it came to animation was computer basics not the hand drawn stuff I really love doing.

    To be fair though a lot of schools not just the Art Institutes are guilty of hawking their text books and other miscellaneous wares in order to turn a larger profit off the student populace. It’s stories like these that make me question the relevance of higher education in the 1st place, after all students are doling out a ton of money to fine-tune their skills and learn, they don’t need to be run into an even deeper hole by being forced to buy books and items that are irrelevant to the course criteria (books that are not in the course syllabi).

    However it is good to keep in mind that while a number of schools are guilty of this some aren’t. I went to a local college to build up a sufficient portfolio, that school was all about the individuals growth and not turning a buck. I have also heard good things about the schools that fall under the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.

    I really hope that Mike Tracy who sounds like a really experienced educator (which is a real asset to any Art Institute) doesn’t get fired over telling the truth and getting his story out there. If he is I’m sure with 11 years experience he will find a teaching job elsewhere.

  • Derik G

    The Art Institutes are by far the worst schools for animation. Never ever go there…for anything actually.

    I went to AIPH and learned more from my friends and internet flash animators than I have from my teachers. Save money and self teach yourself or save money and go to real art schools. AI = artificial intelligence

  • Scarabim

    Bravo, Amid, for bringing attention, not only to this teacher’s plight, but to the plight of his students as well. The college system in this country is appalling. Kids get ripped off, lied to and saddled with horrific debt before they’re in their twenties. It happened to me. I’m debt-free now, but I got very little in return for my investment, and mind you, I made the Dean’s List during my college years. If I ruled the world, I’d do away with colleges altogether and establish a guild system where, after kids were given the necessaries in reading, writing and math, would be entered into a guild that would hone their talents and not waste their time and money with irrelevant classes, school politics and excessive fees. There would be a lot more success stories under such a system, I bet.

  • Schultz!!!!!

    Approximate CAL Arts 4 year tuition = $150k

    Approximate 4 year tuition (to deg) Art Int of OC = $93k

    You can buy a lot of e books for $57,000.

    • That Matt Guy

      Schultz said:
      Approximate CAL Arts 4 year tuition = $150k

      The main reason why a lot of folks simply don’t got to CalArts.

  • Andecimo

    Yeah, doesn’t surprise me at all.

    I graduated from the Art Institute of San Francisco with a degree in animation and I’ve seen the way they treat students. They just see us as walking bags of money and they try to squeeze every last dime out of us till we graduate. And that’s IF you graduate; they love those poor souls who only take a few quarters and then drop out for whatever reason.

    EDMC and the Art Institutes are a bunch of heartless, corporate parasites.

    And don’t even get me started on Sallie Mae; fucking vultures.

  • Dani

    I’m glad I didn’t fall into the AI trap when I was looking at schools. I had looked into things enough myself to know what to expect in the art industry. But whenever the AI had a table at a college fair they would make crazy claims, and I felt very bad for the venerable kids they preyed on.
    I ended up going to a community college just because it felt right. When I really became involved in the art department I realized what a wonderful program they had for as small of a school as it is. The staff is amazing and encouraging and I have yet to buy any text book for an art class. People looking at colleges shouldn’t turn their noses up at smaller colleges just because they aren’t exclusively an “art” school. I even asked a former student if they felt like they had been prepared for the high pressure art school they transferred to and they said they felt more than prepared, and they saved a lot of money by not paying the insane cost of most art schools just for general credits.

  • Ryoku75

    Luckily I managed to avoid debt during my 2 years in college, I briefly left partially because I was sick of the prices for books and the lack of used copies for some.

    A number of books are often slightly modified each year in order to force students to buy new and only new, with a system of high prices and gratuitous updates is it any wonder why that students are in debt with loans?

    I remember that some of my best teachers worked in “Introduction to Film” and Anthropology, both required minimum books while they tought me quite a bit and were just genererally nice people.

  • John B. Ludwick

    There is a large upheaval currently in the for-profit college arena. “College, Inc.” reported that what started as a movement to save dying educational institutions became a grab for guaranteed money in the form of educational loans.
    The for-profit school will be forced to change, between the government crackdown which started about 3 years ago, and controversies such as this which are media seppuku.

    The decision to require a textbook needs to be adequately explored in the information age. The decision can be heuristic; when a book becomes part of the collective consciousness like Williams’ ASK, a teacher doesn’t feel guilty requiring it. Otherwise, a great deal of experience needs to be brought to bear upon the validity and trustworthyness of any book over the internet-at-large.
    I don’t require textbooks for my classes, e- or otherwise. I hate being dragged into a financial vortex over hundreds of $$ of non-read material (as in my undergrad degree) – even though I’m an avid reader today.
    I include an extensive bibliography and if a student’s interested in a book, I give them the pros and cons.

    I know a lot of this information may seem obvious. And that’s why the above story is such a scandal.

    • Bud

      College and prisons—they get the profits, while the taxpayers are left holding the bag.

  • If just about EVERY for-profit school that teaches animation REQUIRES each student in each class to purchase this book or that book regardless of the instructor’s wishes, will ANY school hire him when he is terminated?

    Does he expect any school to side with him in his campaign to reduce their profits from excess sales of books that are not necessary?

    Will the reduction in profits from the sales of the books increase the student’s tuition?
    Will the reduction in profits from the sales of the books decrease the teacher’s salary?
    Seems like a lot of money is at stake…

    One thing that I predict won’t happen: management’s salaries will not be reduced. Just that one word – insubordination – means that the teacher is not in charge. He is just an employee. Synonym for employee? Expendable…

  • Personally not surprised. Really, a school that advertises on national cable isn’t there for its students best interests? Well damn now I have heard everything!

  • Suzie Creamcheeze

    “if there is any truth to Tracy’s allegations”

    Strike !!!
    Boycott this school !!!
    Do not register for classes.
    Do not pay tuition.
    Pickett classes.
    Strike !!!

  • Mike

    Sad to read this but hardly surprising. I attended a couple of local state colleges, and it wasn’t much different in those places either. Some teacher syllabuses read like an advertisement for the school bookstore!

    Thankfully though, I wised up in my last year and refused to buy any more of those overpriced couch supports. In fact, I didn’t buy ANY books. I used the web for all my research, passed with flying colors, and saved a boatload of money.

    “Retail is for suckers.”
    —Cosmo Kramer, philosopher

  • joe

    I’m not an animation student, but I have frequently been irritated by buying a book for a class, only to never open it and return it for a fraction of the price at the end of the semester. It’s even worse when the teacher was the author of the book…

    • Bookstore Manager

      As someone who runs a college bookstore, trust me, we are just as frustrated to sell a book to a student based on an instructor’s request only to find out it was never even used. Everyone’s time and money is wasted.

  • The animation union has got some of the greatest classes for very little money. If I coud do it again, that’s what I would do. Now I owe thosands of dollars. And not too much work in the animation word, due to the fact they want veterans, not newbies. Thank God for Kickstarter and the internet.

  • Principal Dondelinger

    I went there, I never bought books though or the art supplies which cost 200 hundred dollars. We had great teachers and a great Student Director but they booted him out when he wouldn’t sell to the students books and junk. Then all the good artists left one by one, until the program was filled with kids who could barely draw.

  • This guy

    Online petitions have the potential to generate much-needed attention, but for anyone who wishes to be further involved you can express your concerns directly through email to the school president in question Greg Marick at [email protected] (however it is most likely that he is only acting on behalf of the corporate management.)

    This issue needs all of the support it can get from the outside, otherwise it will easily be dismissed despite the backing of other teachers, students and alumni.

  • Jasin Moridin

    Not every for-profit college is horrendous, but from what I understand, AI more than makes up for the ones that aren’t.

    Personally, I figure the very first step in education reform is to stomp the hell out of the outright price gouging on textbooks.

  • Jay

    For those students looking to save a few bucks, I’d always get the book list for my classes before the semester started and go check them out from the school library that sometimes would have a few copies. It works… But obviously not with eBooks.

    • Steve Gattuso

      For e-books, there’s BitTorrent.

      It doesn’t matter what the specialty of the college is, this scam has been going on forever. Where do you think “publish or perish” comes from?

    • purin

      Doesn’t work if it’s only one book on hold, in which case you need to stop in week after week to read it. Not so terrible a thing to do (the library is a fun place to be. PBS raised me well), but if you need quick reference for a paper…

  • So glad I studied animation here in Europe..waaaaay cheaper!
    American animation schools might be exceptional ( well, after reading this article I think maybe not all of them..) but they’re so incredibly expensive!!!!!
    I studied animation in Dublin, at Ballyfermot College and we really had just a couple of books, lots of notes from the teachers which were good professionals..

  • purin

    I’m grateful that last few semesters have been using actually very helpful books, ones that you should own if you don’t already if you’re in the field, which are actual books with sane book prices and not constantly updating textbooks. On top of that, only three or so classes truly required the book. Usually it was just “recommended reading.” I probably dodged a bullet, considering the situation I’m in.

    But in my undergrad, I figured out how to judge whether or not the book was truly necessary, and if it was close to being renewed. Most classes never use the text anyway. The classes, then and now, that most and best used the assigned reading either supplied readers of texts from varying sources (I forget if this was covered by fees or bought in the store, but it didn’t cost the same as a text) or assigned a selection of books that weren’t textbooks, the used versions of which could cost pennies sometimes!

    I was recently reading an article about the lengths schools like the Art Institutes go through to get new bodies and their financial aid money. If it’s true true, they use every bit of psychological trickery in the book getting young and naive people to do something they know will doom them.

    It makes me furious. I’m a firm believer in the power and worth of education, even and especially “useless” education like those liberal arts classes you have to go through on the way to your degree. Critical thinking, philosophy, art history, foreign language, anthropology… I can’t imagine life without at least a touch of those things! I would never hold it against someone for getting the “wrong major.” It’s not like the unemployment crisis was caused by everyone becoming an art or philosophy major!

    It’s all so sickening. We need our education, and we need it in every subject, not just the practical ones. It’s not the students’ fault for craving it, or for taking the bait in a scam.

  • William

    Please keep in mind, these aren’t print books. They are required purchase from the school’s “digital bookshelf”. You never hold a book in your hand and don’t have the option to buy a real book from another provider instead of from them. EDMC created a very serious infraction of fair trade practices when they instituted their policy of FORCED purchase of an e-book edition for limited time use and at inflated prices. I fought this policy since the time it was instituted and finally withdrew from their pathetic excuse for a college (Ai-online) when it became obvious that EDMC’s students’ rights were of absolutely no value to the greedy leadership of these schools!
    I applaud Professor Tracy for standing up to the blind greed that rules the leadership of this corporation.

  • dbenson

    Just as a side note, the current Doonesbury story involves for-profit colleges. The past week set it up with the dean of Walden learning just how much federal money these student mills get.

  • Klyph

    When I went to Art Institute of Colorado they had a similar money making scheme they forced upon all new students.

    Basically after enrolling you were forced to buy a ‘Student Kit’ at $1200 that contained textbooks, art supplies and ‘digital storage supplies’. The textbooks ranged from good to terrible, the art supplies were all over the map most of which went unused for me a computer animation student (spraypaint, a cheap paint palette and brushes that I wound up replacing for better versions at my own expense) but the worst part was the ‘digital storage supplies’ were 2 Jazz Discs and 2 Zip Discs. By my second quarter all the Jazz and Zip drives in the labs had been removed.

    Looking back on it it was basically $1200 for a Newsprint pad, set of oil paints, set of pencils, t-square, and a copy of the Animators Survival Kit. All of which I could have bought on my own for around $100.

  • Yootha

    Teachers aren’t supposed to be salespeople! This is disgusting – it’s up to the students to do their research, not for their teachers to be forced to sell it to them.

  • sc

    I learned after my stint at AI Indy to always wait a while and see if the book is needed before buying. But eventually I realized that the AI chain of schools is kind of terrible, so I left and went somewhere less scammy. I’m learning much more there. -_- So much wasted money. This is why you do your research before selecting a college, but someone fresh out of grade school would probably never think to look to see if the school is a scam. Sad, really.