A Middlebury College chapel, 2 ex-governors and a lawsuit over ‘cancel culture’

  • Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas has filed a lawsuit against Middlebury College alleging that its decision to remove former Gov. John Mead’s name from a chapel amounts to “cancel culture.” (VtDigger file - Abigail Chang) VtDigger file - Abigail Chang

  • Vermont Gov. John Abner Mead in an undated photograph. (Library of Congress photograph)

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    FILE - In this June 25, 2013 file photo, former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas speaks during a meeting of the State Budget Crisis Task Force at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Douglas' memoir, "The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor leads America's Most Liberal State," is set for release Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas speaks during a meeting of the State Budget Crisis Task Force at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Douglas’ memoir, The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor leads America’s Most Liberal State, is set for release Wednesday.ap —File Matt Rourke

Published: 3/28/2023 3:56:34 PM
Modified: 3/28/2023 3:56:20 PM

In September 2021, administrators at Middlebury College removed a sign from a white chapel at the center of campus.

For the previous 105 years, the building had been known as Mead Memorial Chapel, named for the family of Middlebury alumnus and former Vermont Gov. John Abner Mead.

But amid a statewide reckoning over Vermont’s history of eugenics, college administrators decided to remove that name, saying that Mead had played a “central role in advancing eugenics policies that resulted in harm to hundreds of Vermonters.”

Now, another former governor, Jim Douglas, has filed a lawsuit over the name change, alleging that the college’s decision violates a longstanding agreement with Mead’s estate and is a case of “cancel culture.”

“In short, Middlebury College has ‘canceled’ John Abner Mead, forever disparaged and vilified his family name, and replaced his legacy with a narrative that brands Governor Mead a eugenicist and proclaims him responsible for the tragic sterilization of Vermonters and Native peoples,” the lawsuit reads.

The 79-page lawsuit is an addition to a growing list of battles over free speech and “cancel culture” on college campuses — one that dredges up one of Vermont’s darkest chapters.

The chapel

In 1914, John Abner Mead, a Middlebury alum, physician and businessman who served as Vermont’s governor from 1910 to 1912, offered to donate $60,000 to build a chapel at his alma mater.

Mead envisioned a “dignified and substantial” building, he wrote to the college — one that would be “expressive of the simplicity and strength of character for which the inhabitants of this valley and the State of Vermont have always been distinguished.”

Construction was completed in 1916 at a total cost of roughly $75,000 — over $2 million in today’s money, according to Douglas’ lawsuit. The marble and wood chapel is the college’s tallest building.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in Addison Superior Court, Mead and the college’s administrators had an understanding that the chapel would be named the Mead Memorial Chapel, after the former governor’s ancestors.

That agreement — expressed in a series of communications between Mead and college administrators at the time — was so clear that it amounted to a contract, Douglas contends in the lawsuit. By removing the name “Mead,” Douglas alleges, the college breached that contract.

“The name ‘Mead Memorial Chapel’ was the essence of the deal, and it was the entire deal — forever,” the complaint reads. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages and to compel the college to restore the chapel’s name.

A spokesperson for Middlebury declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the ongoing litigation.

‘This defective class’

As justification for Middlebury’s decision to rename the chapel, administrators cited the former governor’s own words; specifically, Mead’s 1912 farewell address to the Vermont Legislature.

According to a transcript on the Legislature’s website, Mead spent nearly 1,000 words of that speech calling on the body to do something about the state’s “degenerates.”

That group included “the insane, the epileptics, the imbeciles, the idiots, the sexual perverts, together with many of the confirmed inebriates, prostitutes, tramps and criminals that fill our penitentiaries, jails, asylums and poor farms,” Mead said.

“In the cases of these unfortunates there is little or no hope of permanent recovery,” he added, “and the great question that is now being considered by the lawmakers in many of our states is how best to restrain this defective class and how best to restrict the propagation of defective children.”

According to Middlebury, Mead’s remarks provided the spark for Vermont’s eugenics movement. Twenty years later, that movement led to the sterilization of over 250 people, most of whom belonged to marginalized groups: people in poverty, French Canadians, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities.

By 2021, Vermont had begun a reckoning over that history. That year, state legislative leaders approved a joint resolution apologizing to the victims and family members affected by the sterilization campaign.

At Middlebury, a working group examining Mead’s role concluded that the governor’s name “on an iconic building in the center of campus is not consistent with what Middlebury stands for in the 21st century,” according to the college’s announcement of the building’s renaming.

But Douglas’ lawsuit argues that the college overplayed the connection between Mead and the eugenics movement.

“The unwarranted accusation conflates historical events that occurred two decades apart, declaring Mead responsible for legislation enacted 19 years after his Farewell Address and more than a decade after his death,” the lawsuit reads.

‘Cancel culture’

Last year, Douglas, a Republican and Middlebury alum who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, boycotted his 50th class reunion over the decision to rename the chapel.

“Cancel culture is alive and well at Middlebury, so, for now, I’ll celebrate alone,” he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Sun.

In an interview, Douglas said the removal of the name also upset Mead’s living descendants, most of whom live out of state. Last year, at the family’s request, he said, Douglas was appointed the “Special Administrator” of Mead’s estate — a position that he took on for the sole purpose of challenging the renaming.

“A lot of his descendants are unhappy because he was punished not for anything he did, but for something he said,” Douglas said. “And this is the whole point of welcoming unpopular, even offensive, ideas: That’s how we learn. And so that’s another reason I’m quite upset about it.”

Asked if Douglas thought his lawsuit could imperil his position of “executive-in-residence,” he cited the college’s stated commitment to free speech.

“So I take the leaders at their word and hope that they’ll respect my point of view,” he said. “Or at least (my) right to express it.”

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