Letter to the editor: Escape clauses needed for college naming honors

Regarding the lawsuit that former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas has brought against Middlebury College’s 2021 decision to change the name of its Mead Memorial Chapel because prior Republican Gov. Mead in 1914 funded its construction under the college’s promise that it would be named after him, I believe that the public’s interest is always more important than anyone’s merely private interest, and that therefore private contracts that violate current understandings — and even violate the clearly stated intent —- of laws (even if those laws were passed subsequent to the date on which such private contract was written) ought freely to be able to be nullified, not locked in perpetuity as they were. 

Slavery, racism and other public issues are viewed very differently by the public today than in past times when they were overwhelmingly accepted and were unobjectionable under then-existing laws. Gov. Mead’s “eugenics” leadership in 1914 ought not to remain permanently to Middlebury College as a public embarrassment to the college. 

However, if Gov. Douglas wins his suit, I hope that Middlebury College will memorialize Gov. Mead’s embarrassment by placing prominently upon Mead Chapel a plaque, at all of its entrances, stating that it regrets that the college’s alumnus Jim Douglas had unfortunately succeeded in forcing the college to continue to name it after the ‘eugenecist’ and former Vermont Gov. John Abner Mead. 

By this means, perhaps, in all future times, whenever a donor requires a public-facing entity (such as that college) to be named after a certain individual, the result might turn out to be not honor but embarrassment to that donor and to that named individual; and this change would greatly reduce the value of such purchased honors. It would also protect all institutions against unnecessary and unconstructive future embarrassments, by making such subsequently discovered embarrassments not to be permanent disabilities to those institutions.

Eric Zuesse


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