Art Institute LV: Scandalized school not a ‘for-profit’ college for its instructors

Commercial photography adjunct professor Michael Brown was between classes late Thursday afternoon at The Art Institute of Las Vegas when I reached him by phone.

Those precious minutes from the end of one class to the beginning of the next are often hectic for teachers and students, but Brown has more time than usual these days. It’s not exactly a beehive of activity around the troubled for-profit college at 2350 Corporate Circle in Henderson. His once-bustling courses on advanced photography and Photoshop are now nearly empty. Brown is part of the small group of professional instructors who remain on the job at the scandalized school that for years has specialized in creative and culinary arts programs.

“It’s like a morgue in here,” said Brown, who has taught there since 2014. “Classes are down to one, two or three students, no more.”

It’s safe to say The Art Institute ought not be offering classes on making payroll. Harried school manager William Turbay, a 16-year Art Institute instructor who has managed to keep the place open, acknowledges teachers essentially haven’t been paid in up to 34 weeks.

No one has to remind Brown and other instructors I’ve spoken with of that fact. They know that while some people will consider them selfless and dedicated, others will call them carnival rubes and some of the last victims of an elaborate hustle that began years ago.

It’s generally understood that most teachers are underpaid. At The Art Institute of Las Vegas, they aren’t paid at all. While Turbay expresses guarded optimism that his recent meeting with a local banker will produce a bridge loan to keep the school’s doors open while officials continue to work to try to pry loose more than $4 million in federal loan funding due for distribution to the school, he won’t likely win a vote of confidence from his beleaguered instructors. At this point, they might settle for a bake sale.

Brown gives current administrators credit for trying — not everyone I spoke with was as generous — but adds the obvious: The fading school has no chance to make a comeback without a substantial infusion and a lot of community faith it doesn’t much deserve.

It appears to remain in business more out of an evolving sense of compassionate compromise with accreditation and state post-secondary education officials than out of a viable vision for the future.

It wasn’t always that way. Not many years ago, dozens of Art Institute campuses were open across the country, and the Henderson location was among its most popular and profitable. That all collapsed in 2015 when parent company Education Management Corp. (EDMC) — the second-largest for-profit college company in the nation — agreed to pay $95.5 million in a global settlement with the Department of Justice to end multiple lawsuits for consumer fraud, illegal recruiting and other violations. The primary allegation? The company unlawfully recruited students using a high-pressure “boiler room” strategy in which employees were paid based solely on the number of students they persuaded to enroll, most often after applying them for long-term financial aid that turned into withering debt.

The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David J. Hickton’s statement reflected the sentiment of the moment. “Today’s global settlement sends an unmistakable message to all for-profit education companies: the United States will aggressively ferret out fraud and protect innocent students and taxpayer dollars from this kind of egregious abuse,” he said.

Except, well, that settlement was couch change compared to the $11 billion in taxpayer-funded student loans collected by EDMC before the DOJ came knocking in 2011. By the time the settlement was signed – EDMC admitted no wrongdoing — $95 million was about all that remained.

Democrats cried foul, and that was under the Obama administration. Let’s just say the ferreting and protecting remains a work in progress under current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has shown as much affinity for the for-profit operators as the students buried in loan debt.

The Art Institute scandal is a travesty and a deep betrayal of the trust of a student body that includes plenty of military veterans on the G.I. Bill, trusting faculty, some administrators and taxpayers everywhere. It’s hardly unique to the slippery side of the for-profit college business, but it’s about as egregious as it gets.

Since the disintegration of EDMC, the bones of its four-dozen private schools and colleges have been thoroughly picked over. The Las Vegas campus holds on as it suffers the consequences of previous actors with the potential for more bad news coming in December.

Turbay and school instructor/spokesperson Lisa Mayo-DeRiso focus on the ongoing battle with an out-of-state receiver and emphasize the selflessness of their fellow teachers. But the grim reality is that the school’s student population continues to shrink from a little more than 500 at the start of 2019 to under 300, according to one estimate. By agreement with the state, the school can add no new students until teachers’ salaries are paid.

They’ll get no argument about one thing: the surprising — no stunning — fact that teachers remain on the job and continue to work without pay on behalf of students who are struggling to cross the academic finish line and complete their degrees, for whatever they end up being worth.

In a reflective moment Brown said, “I had a good group of students … who were really good workers. They were working hard. It wasn’t their fault. I told them I would continue to teach them under the circumstances.”

Although he had no classes scheduled for Friday, Michael Brown said he’d be on campus all day supervising a student on a photo shoot.

The student shows a lot of promise, he said. He wanted to be there to help.

That kind of dedication is hard to put a price tag on, but it’s long past time someone did.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith