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Alleging racism, high-profile TV host sues SF art school for retaliation

Emmy award winner Jan Yanehiro talking about woman's issues at the "Power of Choice" luncheon on March 28, 2011. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A longtime Bay Area TV personality is suing San Francisco's Academy of Art University, claiming racial discrimination and retaliation after her faculty job was terminated.

Jan Yanehiro, 75, is one of the first Asian American TV hosts in the Bay Area, known for her appearance on KPIX’s popular show Evening Magazine in the 1970s and ’80s.

The award-winning and well-known TV host was hired in 2008 by Academy of Art, a private, for-profit art school. She served as the director of the School of Communications and Media Technologies before she was dismissed in mid-2022.

In the lawsuit, Yanehiro alleges that her outspoken efforts to improve the school’s diversity put her in constant conflict with top management, leading to her termination. Additionally, Yanehiro considered the firing “was also substantially motivated by discrimination on the basis of race, color and ancestry.”

Yanehiro declined to comment for this story, referring inquiries to her legal team.

The Academy of Art University is reportedly the largest art and design school in the United States. | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Tamarah Prevost, the attorney who is representing Yanehiro, said her client was the only person of color to chair a department and push diversity issues, but later got fired.

“Asian American employees are discriminated against and retaliated against in the workplace all the time,” Prevost told The Standard. “This case is an unfortunate example.”

The lawsuit cites Elisa Stephens, the president of Academy of Art University, as Yanehiro’s primary antagonist. It claims that Stephens had asked Yanehiro to “walk back” her efforts of promoting the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative within the school, tried to remove her from a key faculty committee and censored her public speech on related topics.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Yanehiro’s diversity initiatives were repeatedly met with opposition, particularly by Academy of Art University’s President, Elisa Stephens,” the suit said.

President of the Academy of Art University Elisa Stephens speaks at a panel at the United Nations. | Jemal Countess/Getty Images

School President Fights Back

In an interview with The Standard, Stephens said Yanehiro was laid off because of the pandemic, not fired.

“I would say that Jan Yanehiro’s claims do not have merit,” Stephens said. “Her department was subjected to consolidation of curriculum following the downturn in our programs during Covid-19.”

Stephens said the school laid off 17 directors and faculty members, as a business decision.

In response to Yanehiro’s criticism about a lack of diversity on the faculty, Stephens said the school aimed to hire the best professional artists it could find, and Academy of Art University—often known as "Art U"—offers a practical curriculum design to help students improve their portfolios and secure jobs.

“We're not a liberal arts school,” Stephens said. “She was hired to teach people how to talk in front of a camera.”

The Academy of Art University owns rental property at 1080 Bush St. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Stephens’s family founded the school about a century ago. It has since grown to become a major player in San Francisco real estate, although not without generating accusations that it purchases rent-controlled residential units and illegally converts them into dorms. Several years ago, the university settled a major fraud case alleging that its recruiters used illegal tactics to attract students who, in many cases, racked up unsustainable debt loads.

Stephens also said the Academy of Art has a long-standing relationship with San Francisco’s Asian American community. A well-known collector of vintage automobiles, Stephens currently sits on the board of the Rose Pak Community Fund in Chinatown. Angela Alioto, an attorney and former San Francisco supervisor, will represent the school in this case.

The civil lawsuit, now pending at the San Francisco Superior Court, asks for economic and non-economic damages and emotional distress relief—but as it is in an early phase, it does not specify the amount of damages. The suit also demands a jury trial, although it is typical for the parties in an employment case to settle.

Han Li can be reached at

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