top of page
  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Middlebury College's Mead Chapel: Hold the Mead

Count me among the Middlebury College alumni who are perfectly fine with their alma mater having divested the school's iconic chapel of the name of John Abner Mead (Class of 1864) on the ground that Mead, Vermont's fifty-third governor, was a committed eugenicist.

[Read on below.]

One of my fellow ex-general managers of the Middlebury College radio station WRMC -- who also happens to be one of Mead's fellow ex-governors of Vermont -- has a flare for publicity and propaganda. Thus, Jim Douglas figured out how to get himself appointed a special representative of Mead's estate for purpose of filing a lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court seeking to force the College to resume calling the 1916 erection Mead Memorial Chapel. The latest publication to take the bait is the Boston Globe, in the form of a vitriolic column by its resident conservative, Jeff Jacoby.

"Too often," writes Jacoby, "men and women whose careers were admirable and even heroic have been dishonored because in one notable respect they fell short. [Thomas] Jefferson, for example, was among the most visionary, inspiring, and influential leaders in US history. But because he was a slaveholder, he is deemed by many to be unworthy of any honor. In his case and numerous others, historical figures are reduced by contemporary critics to a single, defining negative characteristic — and that moral failing is given more weight than all the good they may have achieved in a life of accomplishment and merit."

Jacoby complains that Governor Mead "thus joined a long list of prominent historical individuals whose names or images have been stricken, toppled, defaced, or expunged from public places of honor because things they did or said long ago are regarded today as shameful or benighted." Thus were Globe readers treated to a garden variety rant against what its columnist describes "another chapter in the dismal annals of contemporary cancel culture."

Okay, sure. That's what conservative columnists do. But using a pleading filed in a civil court of Vermont -- i.e., the 79-page complaint Douglas filed in the Addison County Superior Court with the help of an attorney -- to disseminate what is, in effect, a longer version of Jacoby's vitriolic column is a gesture that reallly ought to be beneath a former Governor of Vermont, a former general manager of WRMC, and someone who puports to be a proud alumnus of Middlebury.

Here's a sample from the Douglas complaint: "This 'culture cancellation' and the College’s erasure of Governor Mead’s good deeds and lifelong contributions contradict the very purpose of the College. A higher education institution exists to pursue truth and knowledge,

not to erase history."

Oh, please. The prudential committee of the College's board of trustees -- the body that made the decision two years ago to strip the "Mead" from Mead Chapel -- is hardly a bunch of cancel culture warriors. Middlebury stocks its governing board the same way every other wealthy small liberal arts college does, by tapping wealthy donors and other avatars of mainstream success.

Moreover, in deciding to change the name of the Chapel, Middlebury deliberately opted to eschew any flamboyant gestures. The College simply pried the Mead name from its former place over the door of the Chapel -- an act both Jacoby and Douglas deride as a furtive dark-of-night move -- and then publicly but quietly explained that it was doing so as a result of Mead's avowed support of eugenics. The College did not condemn Mead or imply that his life story and public service should be reduced to that one question.

Rather it is the opponents of the College's decision who have sought to exploit it for purposes of politics and propaganda. How odd, given that people like Jacoby and Douglas can ordinarily be depended on to extol the exercise of free choice by private actors such as the prudential committee of the Middlebury College board of trustees. What could be a more muscular "big government" move than to invoke the coercive power of the state to prevent a private college like Middlebury from changing the name of a building, a decision with no implications whatsoever for any legitimate government interest?

In one respect, loyal friends of Middlebury College owe Jacoby a debt of gratitude; his column contains links both to the complaint Douglas filed and the College's motion to dismiss the litigation. The latter is far more persuasive (and a lot shorter!) than the former, observing: "While not seeking to turn its back on its past, the College must continue to adapt to the modern world and follow its core academic values of robust inquiry and inclusive discourse wherever they lead—even where it means revisiting the name of a cherished, iconic campus building in light of theactions taken byits namesake.Plaintiff and Mead’s heirs may object to the decision, but the law gives them neither standing nor any enforceable right upon which to challenge the removal of the Mead name from the Chapel."

Right next to the building formerly known as Mead Chapel is Hepburn Hall, a dormitory that was donated by its namesake, the New York financier and politician Alonzo Barton Hepburn (1846-1922). Hepburn Hall is a brick building, completed in 1916 that was, during Hepburn's lifetime, painted yellow at the donor's insistence. Once Hepburn had departed this reality plane for that cheerful bright yellow place in the sky, the College had the dorm repainted in grey to match the rest of campus. Time for another lawsuit?

21 views0 comments


bottom of page