Middlebury College strips chapel name over eugenics role

Middlebury College has removed the name of a former Vermont Gov. John Mead from the campus chapel because of what school officials say was his “instigating role” in eugenics policies of the early 1900s

ByLISA RATHKE Associated Press
September 27, 2021, 4:41 PM

Middlebury College removed the name of a former Vermont governor from the campus chapel on Monday because of his “instigating role” in eugenics policies of the early 1900s that “sought to isolate and prevent the procreation of so-called ‘delinquents, dependents, and defectives,’” the school announced.

The move follows the Legislature's apology last spring to all Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed by state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices that led to sterilizations.

Some Vermonters of mixed French Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural white people, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives” and degenerates and sent to state institutions.

John Mead, a physician and industrialist who graduated from Middlebury in 1864, served as Vermont governor from 1910 to 1912, the school said.

The college's Mead Memorial Chapel was named after him and his wife when they gave $74,000 to the school in 1914 to create a new, prominent chapel on the highest point on campus, Middlebury President Laurie Patton and Trustees Chair George Lee said in email to the school community.

Two years before that, Mead had strongly urged the legislature to adopt policies and create legislation premised on eugenics theory, they said.

A college working group, created to examine Mead’s role in these policies and what it means for the school, advised this summer that Patton recommend to the board of trustees that the name be removed.

“His call to action resulted in a movement, legislation, public policy, and the founding of a Vermont state institution that sterilized people — based on their race, sex, ethnicity, economic status, and their perceived physical conditions and cognitive disabilities,” the school officials wrote. “John Mead’s documented actions in this regard are counter in every way to our values as an institution, and counter to the spiritual purpose of a chapel.”

The working group also advised that a committee consider educational opportunities from this change, they said. The education may include signs, architectural installations or public art, the school said. The chapel will be referred to as “Middlebury Chapel” or “the chapel" while an educational task force takes shape, they said.

Three years ago, the University of Vermont opted to remove a former school president’s name from the school library because of his support of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and its leader, a UVM professor. The following year, the outgoing president of UVM apologized for the school’s involvement in eugenics research, calling it “unethical and regrettable.”

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