A Pasadena art and design school that once included Ansel Adams as a guest lecturer is being sued for age discrimination by a 65-year-old former professor who alleges his contract was not renewed in 2020 based on the pretext of unproven allegations in an Instagram post.
Jeffrey Smith’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit against Art Center College of Design also alleges retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Smith seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the suit brought Friday.
“It seemed (the school) was more willing to take statements made in anonymous Instagram posts as truth rather than statements made by a committed and dutiful professor and alumnus with a near spotless record who had served them for 26 years,” the suit states.
An Art Center spokeswoman said Monday the school does not comment on pending legal issues.
Smith received a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in illustration from the Art Center in 1980 and went on to graduate school before returning to his alma mater as an instructor in 1994, teaching a variety of illustration, drawing and painting classes, the suit states. He eventually earned $115,000 annually, plus another $10,000 in bonus pay, the suit states.
Smith received more than 700 positive student evaluations and just two complaints, both of which ended with him being cleared of any policy violations thorough an investigation conducted by the school’s human resources department, according to the suit.
In May 2020, the school felt the impact of the coronavirus on its budget and the administration told the faculty that the highest paid staff members may have to be laid off, leaving Smith feeling he was a target, the suit states.
Two months later, an Instagram posting accused several faculty members, including Smith, of racist and discriminatory behavior as well as sexual harassment, the suit states. As a result, the administration “scrambled for a response,” according to the complaint.
Smith was subsequently suspended before an investigation was conducted, the suit states.
“(Smith) was surprised and confused by his suspension and sought answers from (the) administration,” the suit states. “His pleas were not responded to.”
Smith explained to the administration that the class curriculum the administration approved was based on the use of Southern Gothic literature written during the Jim Crow era.
“He was now being punished for exposing students to material that (the administration) had condoned,” the suit states.
Smith was eventually reinstated and told the school was not proceeding with an investigation into the social media activity, leaving the plaintiff to believe he could resume teaching and put the false allegations behind him, according to the complaint.
However, that same summer, Smith, then 64, was told his contract was not being renewed because his department was “evolving in a different direction,” leaving the plaintiff “shocked and confused,” the suit states.
Smith believes the school treated younger and less experienced employees more favorably than him, the suit states.
Adams, the photographer and environmentalist, was a guest lecturer in the 1930s at the school, which includes director Michael Bay among its alumni.