A Vermont College Removed the Name of a Eugenicist From Its Campus. Is That Enough?

A Vermont College Removed the Name of a Eugenicist From Its Campus. Is That Enough?

A Vermont College Removed the Name of a Eugenicist From Its Campus. Is That Enough?

The former “Mead Memorial Chapel” was renamed by the Middlebury College Board of Trustees. Now, the university has a chance to teach about its role in the eugenics movement.

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In October 1912, John A. Mead, then-Governor of Vermont, gave his farewell speech to the state legislature. He addressed the problem of “our degenerates,” what he called “a class of individuals in whose mental or nervous construction there is something lacking.”

Two years later, Mead and his wife, Mary Madelia Sherman, donated $74,000 to build a new chapel at Middlebury College in Vermont, a small liberal arts college founded in 1800 and the governor’s alma mater. Per his instructions, it would bear the name “Mead Memorial Chapel.”

Standing at the highest point of the campus, the chapel imposes a commanding presence with a colonnade of marble. Inside, the wooden panels inspire the comfort of a New England gathering hall. The chapel hosts convocations, baccalaureates, weddings, and a cappella performances. Every day, the bells of the carillon chime a familiar song from atop the chapel, and the architecture itself has come to symbolize the college.

In September of 2021, Mead’s name was removed from the chapel after a decision by the college’s board of trustees. Previously, the Vermont legislature publicly apologized for the state-sanctioned sterilization of at least 250 Vermont residents in the early 1900s, which the college leadership team contends was a result of Mead’s involvement in advocating  eugenics policies. An announcement from college President Laurie Patton explained the decision. “It compelled us to ask whether it is appropriate to have Mead’s name so publicly and prominently displayed on the Middlebury campus, especially on the iconic chapel, a place of welcome for all.”

In the following year, few updates came from Middlebury about Mead or the eugenics movement. But the removal of Mead’s name did grab the attention of one alumnus—former Vermont governor and executive-in-residence at the college Jim Douglas. “The College vastly overstates Governor Mead’s role in this matter; he didn’t actually do anything, but merely expressed an opinion,” wrote Douglas in an article for The New York Sun. “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.”

This past April, Douglas filed a lawsuit against Middlebury on behalf of the Mead Estate. Douglas argued that the removal of Mead’s name is a violation of written instructions to name the building the “Mead Memorial Chapel” and is an unfair representation of Mead’s legacy. “In short, Middlebury College has ‘canceled’ John Abner Mead.” This time, the lawsuit drew national attention. The Wall Street Journal identified Douglas’s lawsuit in line with similar complaints made by benefactors’ descendants of two other colleges. Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist at The Boston Globe, wrote that Mead joins other historical figures whose names have been “stricken, toppled, defaced, or expunged from public places of honor.”

Of course, the removal of Mead’s name from the chapel was part of a larger national reflection. In 2020, Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson as a namesake for the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, on the basis that Wilson’s thinking and policies were racist—even according to standards of his own time. The same year, Stanford University announced that all campus features named for David Starr Jordan would be renamed, as the former university president was a driving force of the eugenics movement.

But what’s missing from the conversation, according to Dr. Laurie Essig, a professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Middlebury, is the fact that eugenics were—and continue to be—central to the way American elites see the world. Middlebury has a unique opportunity to teach its students about the eugenics movement and the college’s role. Instead, the removal of Mead’s name helped sideline an important conversation, one that was further distracted by a lawsuit over contracts and “cancel culture.”

Jacoby’s article in The Boston Globe similarly condemned Middlebury for its lack of acknowledgement for its complicit participation in the eugenics movement, calling out the “hypocrisy” of the college. “It is curious that the college, while repudiating Mead and labeling his support for eugenics as ‘counter in every way to our values as an institution,’ says nothing about its own extensive involvement in the eugenics movement.”

In Vermont, the eugenics movement was fueled by nativist anxieties from white Anglo-Saxon elites against changes in demographics, particularly from the French-Canadians and the Abenaki. By 1910, policy-makers such as Mead embraced genealogical studies as “scientific” solutions to what they witnessed as a social problem.

Mead, a physician by training, believed that the social decline witnessed in the state was the result of the tainted intermarriage of “defectives.” Based on Mead’s recommendation, the state passed “An Act to Authorize and Provide for the Sterilization on Imbeciles, Feebleminded and Insane Persons, Rapists, Confirmed Criminals, and Other Defectives” in 1912, which was later vetoed by Governor Allen Fletcher. In a 1914 list published by the Journal of Heredity, Middlebury was among 44 colleges offering courses on eugenics through subjects such as pedagogy, biology, and sociology.

In 1924, professor Henry F. Perkins of the University of Vermont launched the Eugenics Survey of Vermont. Through different iterations of the survey, fieldworkers targeted women, the rural poor, and those with mental and intellectual disabilities to study the “defective population.” In the name of population control, many in those groups targeted by the survey were forcibly institutionalized.

Middlebury Professor of American Studies Dr. Holly Allen began researching the history of eugenics in Vermont when she realized that her intellectually disabled son would likely have been institutionalized by the state. Allen’s research foregrounds institutionalized individuals with severe intellectual disabilities, and seeks to expand the scope and construct of intellectual disability, where there are striking continuities from the eugenics era. First-person narratives from survivors of institutionalization and forced sterilization demonstrate the disruptiveness of the eugenics movement, and serve as haunting reminders of its proximity.

Soon after Douglas’s lawsuit and over a year after Mead’s name was removed, Middlebury announced that it gathered an educational committee to “consider educational materials, including permanent sign or plaque installations, to provide more information about the history of the chapel.” The committee was selected by Middlebury’s Senior Leadership Group, and includes professors, students, and staff.

“I think it’s important that one understands Mead as a person, but the most important part is learning about the eugenics movement and coupling that with being aware of the victims,” said Paige Osgood, a recent graduate of the college and a member of the educational committee. Osgood is a fellow at the Twilight Project, an initiative to uncover and reckon with the histories of exclusion and marginalization at the college.

In 2021, she made an initial recommendation to the leadership team to remove Mead’s name from the chapel. While conducting research on the namesakes of campus buildings for the Twilight project, Osgood was alarmed to find Mead’s close involvement with the eugenics movement from a simple search in the database. When Osgood brought the issue to the College, the leadership team was already underway in discussing the removal of Mead’s name.

“Part of the institution’s responsibility is to step up when they have proliferated really harmful ideas, even if it was in the past,” said Osgood. “Making sure that the curriculum taught now is not problematic, and making sure to advocate for groups that have been harmed in the past by ideas that Middlebury has helped proliferate.”

The committee was scheduled to meet this past spring, and Middlebury has not announced further plans for its educational initiative. So far, there are several courses offered in the curriculum for students to learn about the eugenics movement, including “Vermont Incarcerated: Digital History,” taught by Allen.

The course invites students to create digital exhibitions of the state’s history of institutionalization. “Better than telling students what to think about the past is to give them access to the historical records and giving them the chance to tell their own stories, come to their own conclusions, and share that out with other people is a very useful way to go about it,” said Allen.

Storytelling is an important form of recognition and visibility that has long been missing, which Allen believes can serve Middlebury’s increasingly diverse community. “We all deserve to be seen, and part of what it means to have an identity that is constructed and empowering is to know one’s own story. Every group, every individual deserves to have their own history and story recognized.”

So far, several universities across the country have announced procedures for renaming requests, most notably, the exemplary “Report of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” by Yale University. The procedure considers whether the namesake has violated certain university standards. “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?” What is notably lacking is the implementation of educational efforts following the removal of the names.

The conversation around eugenics and its legacy requires a thorough reflection—one that feels particularly urgent following the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of affirmative action—on the norms of elite institutions in America. Middlebury and other universities have the responsibility to arm its students with the tools to challenge existing assumptions, to reenvision and rebuild a place of learning for all members of the community. This begins with looking unflinchingly at our own history.

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