Middlebury College Removes Chapel Donor’s Name
At the crack of dawn on September 27, 2021, while the campus was just coming to life, Middlebury College removed the sign denoting the name of the institution’s house of worship. It had been ‘Mead Memorial Chapel’ for more than a century, since a former Vermont governor, John Mead, donated the structure on the grounds of his — and my — alma mater. He specified its name, to which the Trustees readily agreed.
The College issued a statement shortly after the deed was done, explaining that the Chapel had been named to honor Governor Mead and his wife. That’s completely false. The Governor selected the name not in his own honor, but in memory of his ancestors, the first settlers in the region. That’s right: Middlebury removed the name from a building without even knowing for whom the building was named!
Governor Mead’s descendants are justifiably upset at this insouciance and want the College to reverse course. They asked the Probate Court to reopen his estate and invited me to serve as its Administrator and we have filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement of the family’s name. The case involves the breach of a contract, but also ‘presentism’ (the application of modern values to another point in history) and the right to free expression.
The basis for this summary act was the Governor’s support, in his Farewell Address of 1912, for proposals to restrict the issuance of marriage licenses to those of limited intellectual capacity and to appoint a commission to study the use of vasectomy as a more humane process of sterilization. These never became law, but Governor Mead was proclaimed a eugenicist and the College implied, without evidence, that he was motivated by racism.
The cancellation of Governor Mead contradicts the very purpose of the College. A higher education institution exists for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. That requires a generous exposure to varied ideas and ideologies. Middlebury’s denigration of Governor Mead sullies the reputation of a decent man, as well as a generous benefactor. Support for eugenics was mainstream in the early 20th century, embraced by leaders in society, education and government, including, most likely, the Trustees who gratefully accepted his gift. Presidents, prime ministers, judges, scientists and authors, even the founder of Planned Parenthood supported it. Importantly, the bulk of eugenics activity in Vermont occurred in the 1930s, long after the Governor’s death.
The College vastly overstates Governor Mead’s role in this matter; in fact, he didn’t actually do anything, but merely expressed an opinion. That’s what should trouble every fair-minded observer of this episode: Middlebury is regulating thought, precisely the opposite of what a liberal arts college should do. John Mead not only served his state with distinction; he and a group of classmates interrupted their studies to join the Union Army. He appeared in arms at Gettysburg and subsequently returned to complete his degree. He practiced medicine for a while, but his prosperity derived from several manufacturing firms that created prosperity for many families. He was a Middlebury trustee, received an honorary degree and gave generously to our alma mater, beyond financing the Chapel. Mead was viewed as a progressive. He supported women’s suffrage, toughened child labor laws, strengthened campaign finance statutes and established Vermont Technical College. He doubled funding for highways and favored clean energy, urging the substitution of hydroelectric power for coal. He was seriously considered for the vice-presidential nomination on the national ticket in 1912.
Vermont’s native son, Calvin Coolidge, observed that “Education is to teach men not what to think but how to think.” That requires hearing different ideas and acknowledging them in context. It means learning from history, not erasing it. The College bases its decision on inconsistency with its values. On the contrary, purging the legacy of someone who revered our alma mater and gave generously to support it, due to a single remark that we a century later deem unacceptable, hardly conforms to the purpose of the academy.
Furthermore, students ought to be taught to keep their promises, such as Middlebury’s acceptance of the Chapel with the condition of the name chosen by the donor.
In 2016, when Princeton University was considering the legacy of Woodrow Wilson (and before its giant flip-flop four years later), it invited distinguished scholars to weigh in on Wilson’s mixed legacy of leadership and racism. Professor David Kennedy of Stanford cited “Mark Antony’s cynical pronouncement that ‘the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’” He concluded that “In a world where there is no shortage of evil, it surely seems perverse to highlight the imperfections, rather than the positive accomplishments, of those who tried to do their best. In a world of none but fallen people, the good that some of them manage to do deserves all the recognition that it can get.”
Middlebury should take that to heart and restore the legacy of a beloved and generous alumnus.
Middlebury Class of 1972
Governor of Vermont 2003-11