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)