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Monday, May 20, 2024

College files motion to dismiss Mead lawsuit, considers education efforts

<p>Middlebury College filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit by former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas &#x27;72, contesting the removal of the name &quot;Mead&quot; from the chapel. </p>

Middlebury College filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit by former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas '72, contesting the removal of the name "Mead" from the chapel.

Middlebury filed a 37-page motion on Friday, April 28 to dismiss the lawsuit brought by former Vermont Governor and executive in residence at the college, Jim Douglas ’72, contesting the removal of the name “Mead” from the chapel.

Since Douglas filed the lawsuit on March 24 of this year, the suit has sparked debate across the Middlebury community about “cancel culture” and the history of eugenics in Vermont. The decision that the chapel would no longer bear the name of John A. Mead was enacted on Sept. 27, 2021, due to Mead’s role in advocating and promoting eugenics policies in Vermont in the early twentieth century.

Motion to Dismiss

The motion filed by the college urges the court to dismiss Douglas’ lawsuit, claiming both a lack of evidence that the contract agreed to between Mead and the college was conditional on the use of his name in perpetuity, and a lack of legal standing from the plaintiff.

The motion was filed in Burlington by Middlebury’s counsel Justin B. Barnard of law firm Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew.

Jared Carter, assistant professor of law at Vermont Law School, spoke with The Campus about the key arguments in the motion and what it might mean for the future of Douglas’ lawsuit.

According to Carter, the plaintiff will have 30 days to respond, and then the defendant may be given an opportunity to reply to that response. “Courts don't move very quickly, we are certainly talking months at least before we get a decision on this,” Carter said.

Though the debate around this case has sparked conversations surrounding the history of eugenics and ‘cancel culture,’ legally, it comes down to contract law, according to Carter. “Really what this case is is a contract dispute. It's gussied up as something bigger and broader than that because of the world we are in, but really this is a contract dispute,” he added.

The case hinges on whether or not the college’s initial agreement with Mead obligates them to keep his name attached to the chapel in perpetuity as a necessary condition of the financial investment.

“In similar cases where donors or heirs have challenged what schools want to do, I think plaintiffs have an uphill battle. So I think Middlebury’s arguments are fairly strong in terms of whether a contract existed or not and if Middlebury could change the name,” Carter said.

One comparable case Carter referenced is Hastings College Conservation Committee v. State of California, a 2022 decision by the San Francisco Superior Court in which the court allowed the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, formerly called the Hastings College of Law, to change their name despite protest from Hastings’ descendants. In the ruling on this case, Carter explained, it was established that a contract does not necessarily restrict how one deals with that property forever. “There's a presumption that we don’t encumber property forever because times change, and I think that's an important principle that the college brings up,” Carter said.

There is a second argument that the college makes in its motion to dismiss — even if the contract did have a condition to keep the name forever, former Gov. Douglas does not have legal standing to bring the case to court.

“To get into the courthouse door you need to have some injury. [Douglas] in his capacity as a Special Administrator to the [Mead] Estate doesn't have legal standing [according to the college’s argument],” Carter added.

Carter said that he sees this case as unique in the way that the plaintiff presented their arguments. “The vast majority of it is telling this story of the former Governor and his history… the legal contractual arguments are, almost, when you read the complaint, secondary. That's sort of unusual in litigation, but they clearly have a story they want to tell,” Carter said.

In Carter’s opinion, while there is a high burden of proof to meet to get a case dismissed, the college’s arguments are relatively strong.

“I’ll point to the UC Hastings case, where colleges have been successful. If I were to call this, I think the college’s likelihood of success is bigger than the plaintiff's likelihood of success,” Carter said.

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The legal counsel of the Mead Estate was informed of the motion to dismiss earlier last week. Douglas said he expected this move by the college, but nevertheless, he was overall disappointed by the tone of the written document.

“[The motion] continues to demonize Governor Mead and to make him more of a devil than a loyal and generous alumnus, which is what he was,” Douglas said. “I guess that’s the nature of litigation and lawyering, but I confess to having been disappointed when I read the document.”

Douglas and the legal counsel of the Estate have thirty days to respond to the motion, and they are currently preparing the reply.

Due to the ongoing litigation, Douglas was unable to comment on the specific details of the motion.

The college is also unable to comment on the specific details of ongoing litigation. “Regarding current litigation, we have outlined our case in the recently filed motion to dismiss. Should this case continue, we are prepared to vigorously defend our position,” Julia Ferrante, associate vice president for public affairs, wrote to The Campus.

Education efforts

One month after Douglas filed his lawsuit on April 18, the Office of the President sent an email to the Middlebury community about efforts to consider educational initiatives to provide information about the history of the chapel and the decision by the Board of Trustees to remove the name. The announcement suggested a permanent sign or plaque installation as possible methods of education.

The college removed Mead from the chapel’s name in September 2022, but did not begin forming the education committee until February 2023. They will meet again in May to discuss possible efforts. “We have further asked them to consider how to provide an opportunity for public input and to proceed with a spirit of generosity toward history, acknowledging the full dimensions of those who have led and stewarded the College before us,” the announcement stated.

The committee is made up of 15 community members from the college, including faculty, administration, alumni, students and a trustee.

According to Hannah Ross, Middlebury general counsel, chief of staff to the President and member of the educational committee, members of the committee are observing confidentiality until they reach final recommendations in order to ensure trust among themselves.

Douglas told The Campus that he is in support of the college’s educational initiative for bringing more transparency to the situation, but he believes the efforts are long overdue and should have been carried out prior to the removal of Mead’s name from the chapel. In addition to educating students on the history of eugenics in Vermont and the college’s involvement with the eugenics movement, Douglas emphasized that the college should also educate students on the fair portrayal of a person’s legacy.

“It is important to look at the dominant legacy of an individual, and not cherry pick a particular statement or note that puts them in a bad light. On that basis, any of us could be portrayed less favorably than would be fair,” Douglas said. “So I think that’s an important lesson too, especially at this time when our society feels so polarized and angry. Really important to put everyone and every statement in context.”

In a statement to The Campus, Ferrante wrote that college administrators stand by their decision to remove the Mead name from the Chapel. “Just like our community has evolved over the century since this emblematic building was dedicated, our understanding of the history of this building has evolved. As an educational institution committed to open expression, we continue to explore the complex dimensions of that history — and to teach and learn through it,” Ferrante wrote.

Lily Jones

Lily Jones ’23 is an online editor and senior writer.

She previously served as a Senior News Writer and SGA Correspondent.

Jones is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. She  also is an intern for the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs and on the  ultimate frisbee team.