Complaint alleges the college fired the late Bruce Ferguson after his cancer diagnosis at the height of a faculty coup

By Joe Piasecki

Bruce W. Ferguson became president of Otis College of Art and Design in May 2015

Otis College of Art and Design’s Board of Trustees hired late college president Bruce W. Ferguson as a fiscal and organizational “change-maker,” but when faculty and department chairs vested in the status quo pushed back — and Ferguson became disabled by the cancer that would soon take his life — the board illegally rushed to fire him, a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court alleges.

Ferguson’s tenure from May 2015 to March 2019 coincided with Otis adding a four-story academic wing and five-story residence hall to its Westchester campus, relocating its fashion department from Downtown L.A. to Westchester, and a centennial celebration in 2018. He died from pancreatic cancer and kidney disease in September.

The legal complaint by Ferguson’s sister, who is executor of his estate, alleges that Otis committed discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination related to Ferguson’s illness at the height of a power struggle on campus, when faculty members whose jobs were threatened by organizational changes waged a letter of no confidence campaign against Ferguson after his illness became public.

“Ferguson was hired as a change agent. He knew when he came on board that the changes he would propose were necessary to keep the school afloat, but would disrupt the status quo and shake up people who had enjoyed comfortable positions,” said plaintiff’s attorney James Urbanic, a Westchester-based trail lawyer who specializes in wrongful termination and discrimination cases.

“In a moment of courage the board hired Bruce. Bruce was dismayed that in the end this courage was nowhere to be seen,” Urbanic said. “He felt abandoned and betrayed by the school he tried to help.”

Otis officials had not seen the legal complaint on Wednesday and could not be reached to discuss the lawsuit or its claims about past financial struggles, including its assertion that Otis’ board had acted to “hide the school’s financial losses through significant donations from benefactors” at the time of Ferguson’s hiring.

“Otis was mismanaging its tuition income. A group within the school’s faculty and departmental chairs were being paid with little to show for the salaries they received. Husband-and-wife faculty members took month-long vacations under the auspices of ‘educational trips.’ At least one chair insisted on an opulent Downtown Los Angeles satellite location that cost far more to keep open than any funds the department brought in. Some departmental chairs used the same curriculum year after year, without change,” text of the complaint reads. “This group of faculty and staff aggressively resisted changes that threatened their personal authority, salary, perks or status.”

The lawsuit states that board members gave Ferguson a $50,000 raise in July 2018 and renewed his employment contract through 2021, then nine months later “rushed to fire Ferguson because of Ferguson’s disability” after faculty and department chairs approached the board with a no confidence letter.