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Opinion: College firings in 1991 likened to recent Porter actions

It seems wrong to let this May go by without noting the 25th anniversary of the Middlebury College firings of 1991.
A quarter-century has passed since the lovely spring morning when 17unsuspecting staff members were physically removed from their offices in corporate-execution style — without warning and without even being allowed to retrieve their personal belongings — and told that their jobs were gone. Most were women and over age 50. Some had been working at the college more than 30 years.
The new and short-lived college president, Timothy Light, claimed falsely that the institution was in dire financial straits and that the firings were a regrettable but necessary survival measure. He also claimed that the fired workers were not being dismissed as individuals but rather that their positions were terminated because they were not essential. The fact that one of the women fired was the secretary of the French School, due to open in a few weeks, clearly proved the absurdity of Light’s assertion.
Then-provost John McCardell Jr., who ran around campus on the afternoon of the firings justifying the action to the victims’ stunned colleagues and warning them not to protest, went on to a long and celebrated career as Middlebury’s president. He has never acknowledged that the firings were unnecessary, nor has he apologized for the immeasurable harm done to loyal and hard-working employees.
The aftermath of the layoffs is too long to recount fully, but it was well documented in the Addison Independent and in local, state and national newspapers. Responding to public condemnation, the college offered some meager compensation to the fired staff members and hired a few back into different positions at lower salary and without their earned seniority. Twenty-five years later, when many (probably most) current college employees have never heard of this grim chapter in the institution’s history, the pain continues for some of the victims.
Many who remember the 1991 firings have compared them to the recent dismissals and resignations of nurses and doctors at Porter Medical Center, which have likewise caused great harm to dedicated, hard-working people and spread confusion and alarm among local residents. As with the college firings, public wrath has forced the hospital administration to offer some response, but it was long in coming and woefully inadequate.
It’s hard to say what we may have learned in the quarter-century between these two traumatic events in our seemingly idyllic little town. Perhaps still stung by the remembered outcry in 1991, the college avoided further layoffs and responded to financial stress following the 2008 stock market crash with a more humane policy of early retirement incentives and natural staff attrition. Certainly the repercussions of the disaster at Porter will continue to be felt for a long time.
Brutal and mercenary corporate actions such as those at the college and Porter not only injure vulnerable individuals but violate the security and integrity of the entire community. We watch in horror, feeling the need to act but realizing that ultimately we are powerless to defend our co-workers, friends and fellow citizens or to prevent such injustice from happening again. At the very least we owe it to ourselves and our community to make sure that these events are not forgotten.
Judy and Michael Olinick
Middlebury

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