The former marketing director for the Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts is suing the private art university, alleging he was fired in 2019 because of his age and that it occurred a week before he and others were scheduled to evaluate the performance of the university president.
James Wolken’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges wrongful termination, retaliation, discrimination and a violation of the state Labor Code. Wolken, whose age is not given in the lawsuit, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the suit brought Friday, which alleges Ravi S. Rajan targeted older employees soon after he became the new CalArts president in the fall of 2017.
“Wolken’s termination silenced him before he could express further concerns about the institution’s treatment of older employees under Mr. Rajan’s administration,” the suit states.
A representative for the school’s office of communications could not be immediately reached.
Wolken had more than 20 years experience in higher education when he was hired as CalArts’ executive director of marketing and communications in September 2016, the suit states. But Wolken soon realized that his age would be held against him at CalArts, according to the suit.
After Rajan’s appointment, the new president advised Wolken to “get rid” of CalArts alumni magazine editor Stuart Frolick “as quickly as possible,” claiming he was “old and entrenched at CALARTS for far too long,” the suit states.
Wolken argued against firing Frolick and when Rajan continued to insist that he be terminated, the plaintiff shared his concerns about this conversation with several senior school leaders, the suit states.
In February 2018, Rajan hired Chebon Marshall, a childhood friend from Oklahoma, as his new chief of staff, creating a new position at CalArts, the suit states. Marshall spent his career in Oklahoma state politics, but had no prior experience at a university, much less in the area of education, according to the suit.
Marshall became Wolken’s direct supervisor in October 2018 and he referred to the plaintiff as “grandpa” in front of Rajan and a group of senior managers at a pre-Halloween show, poking fun at the cardigan sweater Wolken was wearing, the suit states.
“Mr. Rajan and Mr. Marshall both laughed quite loudly, but were the only ones doing so,” the suit states.
Wolken protested the term “grandpa,” but Marshall did not apologize and later referred to him as a “dinosaur” because of the plaintiff’s lack of activity on his social media accounts, the suit states. Marshall also referred to another university staff member as “old school” and “behind the times,” the suit states.
Wolken’s concerns about what he saw as a bias against longtime CalArts workers mirrored a sentiment he heard from his staff that Rajan was trying to eliminate older employees so he could replace them with younger ones, the suit states.
“There was even a common joke developing among the staff that if one is young and pretty, they will do well under in Mr. Rajan’s administration,” the suit states.
Marshall gave Wolken his annual performance review in April 2019 for his performance in 2018 and despite being his supervisor for only three months during that year, he gave Wolken “the worst review he had ever received in over 20 years in higher education,” the suit states.
In June 2019, Rajan’s cabinet held its summer retreat on campus and Rajan said he wanted to “get rid of all the deans. They’re terrible. They’re old-fashioned and behind the times. CalArts will be so much better without them,” according to the suit
Wolken told Marshall he was unhappy about Rajan’s comments, but his concerns “again fell on deaf ears,” the suit states.
Wolken was fired Sept. 25, 2019, a week before the plaintiff and other members of the president’s advisory group, the senior leadership team of the institute, were scheduled to provide feedback on Mr. Rajan’s performance and leadership, the suit states.
CalArts was incorporated in 1961. Walt Disney was one of its founders.