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Douglas sues college over name of chapel

FORMER VERMONT GOV. Jim Douglas late last month sued his alma mater and part-time employer Middlebury College for the school’s 2021 decision to change the name of the historic structure known formerly as Mead Memorial Chapel.  Independent photo/Marin Howell

MIDDLEBURY — A famous playwright asked, “What’s in a name?” When it comes to an iconic chapel at Middlebury College, the answer includes centuries of Vermont history, a gift from a well-known alum and a lawsuit recently filed by an equally famous graduate.

Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas is suing the college for its 2021 decision to change the name of the historic structure, formerly known as Mead Memorial Chapel. College officials stripped from the chapel the name of the man who funded construction of the stone edifice, Gov. John Abner Mead, because he played a role in the state’s eugenics movement. 

Since the fall of 2021, the building has been known as “Middlebury Chapel” or simply “the chapel.”

According to Douglas, the name change broke an agreement between the institution and Mead, who had asked that the chapel be named in honor of his ancestors. 

“When Gov. Mead sent his letter to the college in 1914, he specifically indicated the name that he wanted on the building, it’s in quotes in his letter, ‘Mead Memorial Chapel,’” Douglas told the Independent. “The college accepted it on that basis.” 

In 1914, Mead and his wife contributed around $75,000 to Middlebury College to construct the chapel. The gift coincided with the 50th anniversary of Mead’s graduation from the liberal arts institution. 

In a letter to the college’s then-president, Mead expressed his desire to construct a chapel “to be known as the Mead Memorial Chapel” and represent “the simplicity and strength of character for which the inhabitants of this valley and the State of Vermont have always been distinguished.”

The 79-page lawsuit filed by Douglas on March 24 details that, in this letter, Mead also invoked the names of his great-great-grandfather, James Mead (and Rutland’s first settler), and his great-great-grandmother, whose lives he saw as “embodying the simplicity, strength of character, and religious faith that Mead envisioned the Mead Memorial Chapel would symbolize.” 

MEAD AND EUGENICS

For more than a century — including the period when Douglas was a student here during the early 1970s — the chapel bore the name that Mead proposed. On Sept. 27, 2021, George C. Lee, chair of the college’s board of trustees, and Middlebury College President Laurie Patton announced the institution would slash Mead from the chapel’s name. 

Earlier that year, the Vermont Legislature had issued a public apology for the early-20th-centry legislation that authorized the forced sterilization of at least 250 Vermonters as part of a eugenics policy in the state.

“That statement by the state Legislature raised a question for us at Middlebury about the role played by Gov. John A. Mead, Class of 1864, whose gift established Mead Memorial Chapel, in advocating and promoting eugenics policies in Vermont in the early 1900s,” Patton and Lee wrote in their 2021 letter to the college community. 

Lee and Patton referenced Mead’s farewell speech as governor, which he delivered two years before making his chapel gift to the college. A portion of this speech focused on how to address the state’s “degenerates.” 

“In the cases of these unfortunates there is little or no hope of permanent recovery, 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,” Mead said in the 1912 speech. 

Mead included in this group “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.” 

The outgoing governor encouraged the Legislature to restrict the issuing of marriage licenses to such individuals, as well as to form a commission to study the use of vasectomy (making a man infertile) as a means of preventing the spread of diseases and hereditary defects. 

Lee and Patton’s statement claims this speech catalyzed the state’s eugenics movement and the creation of a state institution that sterilized individuals. The college officials wrote that such actions were in opposition to the institution’s values and “counter to the spiritual purpose of a chapel, a place to nurture human dignity and possibility, and to inspire, embrace, and comfort all people.” 

LAWSUIT’S CLAIMS

FORMER VERMONT GOVERNOR Jim Douglas stands outside the Middlebury chapel.
Independent photo/Marin Howell

The complaint filed by Douglas objects to multiple statements made in Lee and Patton’s letter, such as that the chapel’s name honored Mead and his wife. 

“The Chapel was not named for John Mead, nor was it built to honor or memorialize John Mead,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, it was erected by John Mead and named the “Mead Memorial Chapel,” in memory of the Mead family ancestors who embodied the values that were symbolized by the Chapel itself.” 

The complaint also argues against the college’s assertion that Mead was responsible for the sterilization of Vermonters, noting the legislation referenced in Lee and Patton’s statement was enacted 19 years after Mead’s 1912 address and more than a decade after his death. 

The lawsuit goes on to state the college’s decision to remove the Mead name from the chapel “obliterated any memory of selfless acts and the altruistic contributions John Mead made to his nation, state, county, town, church, and to Middlebury College itself.” 

“We can all disagree with those specific recommendations that (Mead) made, and I think we all would, but that doesn’t really represent the totality of who the man was,” Douglas told the Independent. “In making those remarks, the college has besmirched him and sullied his legacy and his life of public service and philanthropy.”

The lawsuit details the former governor’s life, including Mead’s time fighting in the Civil War, operating a Rutland medical practice and providing financial donations to Middlebury College and toward the establishment of a community center for youth in Rutland. 

The lawsuit seeks restoration of the Mead name to the chapel, or compensatory and punitive compensation of an unspecified amount. Douglas said Mead’s descendants are hoping to see the family name returned to the chapel. 

Like Mead, Douglas has his own multiple ties to Middlebury College. The former, four-term governor is himself a Middlebury College alum, and in 2022 boycotted his 50th college reunion in light of the institution’s decision. 

Since 2011, Douglas, a Middlebury resident, has also held the title of executive in residence at Middlebury College. In this position, Douglas instructs academic classes at the college and conducts independent studies with students. 

“Middlebury’s been an important part of my life, as much as it was Gov. Mead’s, and I hope we’re able to solve this quickly and satisfactorily,” Douglas told the Independent.  

Julia Ferrante, associate vice president for public affairs at the college, told the Independent Douglas continues to hold his executive in residence position at the college. Ferrante added the college had “received the complaint but I am not able to discuss pending litigation.” 

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