Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | About 130 students at San Diego’s Art Institute of California will be finishing the last two weeks of their academic year without something that has become a fixture in the classroom: their teacher.

On Tuesday, the private, for-profit college dismissed Greg Campbell, an instructor who has worked for the school for three years and had been teaching six anthropology and ethics classes at the institute this spring. The dismissal followed several weeks-long investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and other classroom improprieties by the teacher, accusations Campbell said have been cooked up to punish him for leading a faculty unionization drive at the school.

In recent months, Campbell and a group of four other Art Institute instructors have been distributing union authorization cards to faculty members asking for their pledge to affiliate with the California Federation of Teachers, the first step to calling a secret-ballot union election. Campbell’s dismissal, the union and faculty organizers argue, is only the latest escalation in the college’s efforts to thwart the organization attempt.

In a public statement and memos to school staff, the institute’s top administrator has expressed hesitation about the idea of sharing the power to set the school policy with the faculty, one of the unionization drive’s main demands. The school remains opposed to giving faculty a say in the operations of the campus, Campbell said.

“A democracy is more complicated than even a benevolent dictator,” he said of the Art Institute’s opposition to unionization drive.

In a statement issued Tuesday, and in a subsequent interview, Art Institute President Elizabeth Erickson declined to discuss the details of Campbell’s dismissal, though she denied that it was related to his work on behalf of the union.

“I cannot comment on any personnel issue, but I have never and will never make an employment decision based on union activity/affiliation,” she said in a written statement.

Erickson has made no secret of her opposition to the union. In several letters distributed to staff at the college, Erickson has urged faculty members to not sign the union authorization cards.

She ended one memo on the drive, dated April 26, with a sentence written in bold capitals: “You may be signing up for more than you bargained for!” (Erickson said her intention was to warn faculty that signing the union cards would entangle them in a legally binding contract.)

A union, faculty organizers hope, will bring the 130 teachers at the 2,400-student school a binding contract to replace the current arrangement that allows instructors to be fired at will, in addition to standardized salary schedules, competitive pay and sabbaticals. But more importantly, they say, it will create a system of shared governance that will force administrators to collaborate more closely with instructors over school policy.

“Working for a corporation, rather than a nonprofit, is very different from most educational institutions,” said Katie McGowan, an instructor at the school and a member of the faculty organizing activity. “Overall, the environment there is really service-oriented and the emphasis is on the dollar, rather than the quality of education.”

The San Diego campus, like the other 33 schools that are part of the Art Institute chain, is owned by the Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp., and at least one other campus in the chain currently has a faculty union. Formerly publicly traded, Education Management Corp. was acquired last year by Providence Equity Partners and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, two investment firms.

A year’s worth of tuition at the school costs close to $20,000 and its degrees range from video production and animation to interior design and the culinary arts.

Education Management Corp. is only one of many private operators in the for-profit higher education sector, which has expanded quickly in the last decade. In recent months, the industry has been stung by government audits that raised questions over the academic quality of education provided the University of Phoenix, the nation’s leading operator of for-profit universities. Unlike nearly all public universities, private colleges in California — including the nonprofit ones — do not tend to be unionized.

At the Art Institute, faculty organizers blame school’s corporate backers for the recent escalation in its opposition to the unionization drive.

Several weeks ago, the faculty softened its stance and dropped the demand for an outright collective-bargaining agreement, proposing to instead form an academic senate that would share the policy-making responsibilities at the arts school. The concession, Campbell said, appeared to satisfy Ines Kraft, the Art Institute’s dean of education time.

However, Kraft has since left the school.

Contacted at her La Jolla home, Kraft declined to comment on the issues surrounding her resignation from the Art Institute.

Several weeks ago, Campbell said, he was put on a temporary leave after a female colleague came forward accusing him of making several lewd comments, which the school said constituted sexual harassment.

With the help of a union lawyer, Campbell fought the sexual harassment charges, which he said were resolved to his satisfaction when the Art Institute concluded that he could stay on as an instructor but could not teach ethics courses in the future or mentor junior faculty. Erickson would not discuss the investigation.

Yet soon after the first investigation was completed, Campbell said, the school launched another inquiry into comments he made to students in one of his classes. Discussing a project on “micro-cultures,” Campbell suggested that students interested in studying the gay community could receive extra credit by taking part in it sexually.

He acknowledged making the comment, which he described as an attempt to be humorous.

“I make lots of jokes that are comparable,” Campbell said. “I have a reputation for being funny.”

One former student, 27-year-old Travis Ripley, who described Campbell as his most memorable teachers at the school, said the instructor’s quirky sense of humor has irked some students before, but described it as simply part of being in an art school environment.

“You can’t really put your finger on it, but he’s just really open,” Ripley said of Campbell. “I think some people may misinterpret it, and think he’s flirting, but it’s just his style of teaching.”

Ripley added: “He was definitely one of my favorite teachers, to be in his class, because it just felt like we were learning.”

McGowan, one of the other faculty organizers, said she is positive that the allegations brought against Campbell are motivated by his involvement with the union organizers, and said she has never heard of him doing anything inappropriate.

“The people that get promotions in this company are yes-men, literally,” she said.

Though she remains committed to the unionization efforts, McGowan said she will leave the Arts Institute this month after two years there because of unsatisfactory working conditions.

Erickson, the Art Institute president, declined to discuss employment decisions involving individual staff members, though she said she didn’t want the current controversy to distract from the school’s record of success.

“I certainly do not want this issue to obscure what our school is all about,” she said in a statement. “I am very proud of the quality and caliber of the faculty who educate our students at the Art Institute of California – San Diego. … Our faculty members are intelligent, accomplished career professionals in the field, as well as educators who care a great deal about our students. And we trust that they will always strive to do that which is in the best interest of students.”

A union, she said, would only reduce her ability to work personally and one-on-one with individual faculty members. Asked about her position on an academic senate without a union, Erickson responded: “I would say that I don’t choose to answer that question.”

Campbell and his lawyers have said they will file complaints alleging unfair labor practices with federal officials.

As for Campbell’s students, substitutes have taken over his six courses in the concluding weeks of the academic year. And the school has asked him submit their grades to date — via mail.

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