A class-action lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court accuses Middlebury College of failing to adequately reimburse students sent home in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The complaint says the college violated its contract with plaintiff Henry Mooers, of Norwell, Mass., and other students who paid for a semester's worth of in-person learning and other services that they did not receive.
Students who paid tuition expecting a "first-rate education and an on-campus, in person educational" experience were instead "provided a materially deficient and insufficient alternative," the suit says.
If a federal judge certifies the suit's class-action status, it would cover all Middlebury students who were sent home in the spring, as well as those affected during "any other semester" in which COVID-19 forces classes online.
That would be a broader class than that being sought in a similar lawsuit filed in April against the University of Vermont. The suit could also have wide-ranging financial impacts if a spike in COVID cases forced Middlebury to again shutter its campus.
In a statement to Seven Days, Middlebury spokesperson Sarah Ray did not address the lawsuit’s charges directly. But she said that while the college has “worked hard” to reduce and limit new spending, the costs of the “high-quality educational experience” expected at Middlebury have only increased in light of the pandemic.
“Last spring, faculty worked creatively and quickly to ensure the continuity of education for our students,” Ray wrote. “Our ability to provide this continuity is dependent on our existing revenue sources, which include both tuition and a larger-than-usual draw on our endowment to help offset these new costs.”
Tristan Christopher Larson, a Rutland attorney representing the plaintiff, declined to comment.
But it did not extend any similar offer for roughly $220 per semester "student activity fees" that the lawsuit claims are mainly used for services that were canceled due to the pandemic. Nor did it reimburse its 2,500 undergraduate students for the roughly $29,000 per semester tuition, even though the online learning options offered to students in the final two months were "sub-par in practically every aspect" compared to the college's traditional in-person learning, the lawsuit says.
Students "have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback, and critique," the suit says, adding that most students were also not able to access libraries, laboratories, computer labs, and study rooms, which are "integral to a college education."
The suit points to a change.org petition signed by about 130 people as proof that students feel cheated. The petition, which calls on the college to issue partial tuition refunds, was created by an undergraduate student who wrote that, "while the university is not to blame for the coronavirus, it is undeniable that the product students are receiving is vastly different from one they were sold and paid for up-front in good faith."
Instead of tuition refunds, the college's board of trustees recently announced that it would move forward with a 3 percent tuition increase for this school year. The hike was first approved in January, before the pandemic hit.
Addressing questions about why the college cannot tap into its $1.15 billion endowment to cover the refunds and stave off the tuition increase, college treasurer David Provost told the campus newspaper earlier this month that the vast majority of the endowment is restricted for donor-specified purposes.
“We could go back and ask donors — if they’re still alive — if we can change it, and we still may have to do that if things get much worse," he told the paper.