“To Whom Should We Make Out the Check?”

Given the health risks posed by COVID-19, it’s no surprise that The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an article entitled “Why the Fall Will Be a Liability Minefield” for colleges and universities (May 29 online). 

Instead of being immobilized by this challenge, Middlebury College in Vermont is embracing it.  When students return to campus in August, they will find that the second floor of the McCullough Student Center has been converted into a honeycomb of offices representing legal firms they can easily access for lawsuit assistance.   

As Middlebury President Laurie Patton put it, “we know that we are putting students in harm’s way by bringing them back here with no vaccine available.  And given our liberal worldview, we feel really guilty about that, just as we feel really guilty about every thought we think and every action we take at Middlebury, every day of the year.  By making it convenient for students to sue us, we hope to send a message that says, ‘we may be screwing you, but we’re doing our best to help you screw us’.

“We are committed to resolving all cases within 48 hours of their being filed, and that includes weekends.  A branch of the town’s municipal court will be housed on the first floor of McCullough, and it will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  A judge will sleep on the premises. 

“We plan to offer a $10,000 settlement to every plaintiff.  With Middlebury’s endowment at $1.1 billion, and fewer than 3,000 students enrolled, we should be able to handle this.

“These procedures can only be used for coronavirus-related cases.  Legal complaints concerning racial injustice, gender bias, and sexual harassment must be filed in person by the complaining party at the State Superior Court in Montpelier.  A faculty task force is hard at work developing an expedited process for these allegations, and their preliminary report is due to be released in October 2021.”

With respect to COVID-19, students receiving Pell Grants can choose to be represented by the Vermont Legal Assistance Clinic or by Bob LeGruyère, a local attorney who specializes in class-action suits involving lead-tainted maple syrup.  Students paying full tuition will be represented by senior attorneys from Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and during the initial interview will enjoy a delicious 3-course meal catered by Wolfgang Puck’s nephew, Dingo Flanelle. 

The positive consequences of Middlebury’s initiative are already being noticed, even before students return to campus.   According to President Patton, “I’m sleeping better now than I have in years.  It feels good to give!”

University leaders across the country, take note.