Editorial: Have we lost nuance and context?

If the story in Thursday’s Independent about the Porter Medical Center president’s resignation falls short of helping the community understand why he resigned, chalk it up to a culture that has diminished the importance of context and nuance.

In this instance, Porter’s President and COO Seleem Choudhury resigned from his post feeling, according to a press release sent out by the UMV Health Network, that the integrity of his leadership had been so comprised he could no longer lead the team.

What was the infraction? In eight weekly inner-staff emails, during the five months he had been there, he had plagiarized short passages — sometimes dealing with the routine definitions of anxiety, stress and other medical terms. These weren’t scholarly dissertations of medical advancements, mind you, but short personal and inspirational messages to the 800 or so Porter Medical Center employees written in an effort to inspire this large team to feel connected to the medical center’s leadership.

The emails were never intended for community consumption, though just over 50 or so community members who asked to be included on them were; these included board members, former doctors and other interested parties, including this newspaper.

The readers of the employee emails first learned of Dr. Choudhury’s plagiarism when he reported as much in an earlier email, ahead of any news story. He noted he had failed to provide attribution to a passage in one message, apologized and said he would not make such a mistake going forward.

Had that been all of it, case closed. But while he admitted to one violation, there were seven others that a Porter colleague, known as the anonymous whistleblower of this saga, brought to the attention of the Porter Medical Center board and to the press.

No one, of course, condones plagiarism — particularly journalists. Proper attribution is easy enough to do, and Porter’s board of directors was right to spend a week or two investigating the alleged instances to understand the extent of the problem and assure it was not repeated.

But here’s where context and nuance should come in. Let’s agree this was an inner-office email newsletter not meant for the broader community, and written in an informal style. Let’s agree Dr. Choudhury was learning the ropes of being a hospital president managing a team of 800. Let’s agree that in almost any new job, minor mistakes will be made, learned from, and forgiven under most circumstances.

So, what happened? Sometimes it’s how those mistakes are handled that causes more uncertainty than the mistakes themselves.

The press release pertaining to Dr. Choudhury’s resignation did not elaborate on such context or nuance beyond the explanation that the success of the organization comes first: “I realize my actions surrounding my weekly e-mails were wrong and I apologize,” he wrote. “I know I am no longer the right person to lead Porter and have made the decision to resign. I care very much for the organization and its people and have tried to inspire others through connection, dedication and passion. Above all, I want Porter to be successful.”

That’s public relations speak for agreeing on a resignation without providing an explanation, and it’s most likely good counsel from a human resources perspective, even if it leaves the community still wondering what transpired.

What we can hope is that the board and Dr. Choudhury came to this mutual decision because there were other more concerning factors involved. We hope that the instances of plagiarism were put in a rightful context that did not sway their decision. And we hope the leadership team at Porter and UVM Medical Center have adequate faith in the greater-Middlebury area’s abilities to frame issues in proper context and to understand the nuances that are so important to a society’s ability to work together, to understand each other, and to practice the give-and-take that is necessary in an imperfect world.

— Angelo Lynn 

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100