Former governor sues college over chapel name removal

Mar 27, 2023, 10:11 AM

A former Republican governor of Vermont has sued Middlebury College, his alma mater, accusing it of cancel culture behavior for removing the name of another former governor and Middlebury graduate from the campus chapel for what the school said was his role in eugenics policies in the early 1900s.

Former Gov. James Douglas filed the breach of contract lawsuit against the president and fellows of the Vermont college on Friday as special administrator of John Abner Mead’s estate. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and to have the Mead name restored to the chapel.

Without any warning or public discussion, Middlebury announced in 2021 that Mead Memorial Chapel would “no longer bear the name John Mead, Vermont governor from 1910 to 1912 and Middlebury Class of 1864, due to (Governor Mead’s) role in promoting eugenics policies in the state that led to the involuntary sterilization of an estimated 250 people,” wrote Douglas who served as governor from 2003 to 2011.

“This language makes a grossly distorted claim of the type that has become all too common in the current ‘cancel culture’ in which we live. Such a claim is not what one would expect from an internationally renowned liberal arts college,” the 79-page lawsuit states.

Middlebury College said Monday that it had received the complaint but could not discuss pending litigation. Middlebury officials said in 2021 that Mead Memorial Chapel was named after John Mead and his wife when they gave $74,000 to the school in 1914 to create a new, prominent chapel on the highest point on campus. Two years before that, Mead had strongly urged the legislature to adopt policies and create legislation premised on eugenics theory, they said.

In spring 2021, the Legislature apologized to all Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed by state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices that led to sterilizations. Some Vermonters of mixed French Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural white people, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives” and degenerates and sent to state institutions. In 2018, the University of Vermont decided to remove a former school president’s name from the school library because of his support of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and its leader, a UVM professor. The following year, the outgoing president of UVM apologized for the school’s involvement in eugenics research, calling it “unethical and regrettable.”

The lawsuit states that the chapel was not named for John Mead but was named “in memory of the Mead family ancestors who embodied the values that were symbolized by the Chapel itself.” It was built by Mead as a place for divine worship and as a meeting house, designed “to symbolize the simplicity and character of the people of the Otter Creek Valley and the State of Vermont,” the lawsuit states.

By removing the name, Middlebury breached that agreement and promise, and “obliterated any memory of the selfless acts and the altruistic contributions John Mead made to his nation, state, county, town, church, and to Middlebury College itself,” Douglas wrote in the lawsuit.

Mead and other family members fought in the Civil War. He also was a beloved physician in Rutland; a businessman and philanthropist; and was elected to the state Senate in 1892. He served as lieutenant governor before becoming governor, the lawsuit states.

The basis for the name removal was Gov. Mead’s support, in his farewell address of 1912, “for proposals to restrict the issuance of marriage licenses and to appoint a commission to study the use of a new operation called a vasectomy, which was a safer and more humane process of sterilization,” the lawsuit states. But claims that his comments caused sterilizations to happen 20 or 30 years later “is factually baseless and legally unjust,” Douglas wrote.

“The problem with imposing our 21st century world view on actors who lived over a century ago lies in judging and ostracizing them for mainstream views prevalent in the society of the time,” the lawsuit states.


Rathke reported from Marshfield, Vermont.

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Former governor sues college over chapel name removal