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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Education over erasure: The chapel and cancel culture at Middlebury

It has been two years since Middlebury removed the name of John A. Mead from the Middlebury Chapel following a unanimous vote by the College’s Board of Trustees. In 1914, Mead and his wife made a donation — equivalent to more than two million in today’s dollars — to build a new chapel on the “highest point” of campus. Mead, however, was an advocate of eugenic theory both in policy and in legislation, speaking in favor of the potential benefits of marriage restrictions, sterilization and segregation. The chapel renaming followed the Vermont government’s efforts earlier in 2021 to “sincerely apologize and express sorrow and regret” for the state’s complicity in the eugenics movement, including the forced sterilization of over 250 Vermonters.

While we are grateful that the centerpiece of our campus is no longer represented by the name of a eugenicist, we urge the college to follow through on educational efforts surrounding the issue of eugenics in Vermont, instead of merely virtue signaling through the name removal. Moreover, we see the removal of Mead’s name from the chapel as an opportunity for students at Middlebury to reflect on the importance of discussion and debate around critical issues, not simply erasure of past wrongdoings. 

In March 2023, former Vermont governor Jim Douglas ’72, executive-in-residence at the college who frequently teaches political science classes, filed a 79-page complaint in the Vermont Superior Court alleging that the school breached its contract with the estate of Governor John Mead by removing the Mead name from the chapel. Douglas also described the removal of Mead’s name from the chapel as an example of “cancel culture” at the college. “Cancel culture is alive and well at Middlebury, so, for now, I’ll celebrate alone,” Douglas wrote in a May 2022 op-ed in the New York Sun referencing his decision to boycott his 50th reunion. 

A month later, Middlebury filed a 37-page motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming a lack of evidence that the contract was conditional on the usage of the Mead name in perpetuity and a lack of legal standing from a plaintiff. Douglas and the Mead family are not seeking monetary compensation for the removal of the name and instead wish for the college to restore Mead’s name to the chapel in the form of a plaque that also explains eugenics, Mead’s speech advocating for eugenics and Middlebury’s own complacency in the movement.

We as an Editorial Board, however, are not focused on the technicalities of Douglas’ lawsuit and the contractual issue of the chapel’s name. The heart of the issue for us, rather, is about education on historical wrongdoings, such as the eugenics movement in Vermont. We feel mostly positively about the college’s decision to remove Mead’s name, given that Mead participated in the American history of eugenicist beliefs. However, instead of carrying out a community conversation about Mead and eugenics, the letters of “Mead” were removed from the chapel without advance notice and under the cover of darkness. The removal leaves the letters of “chapel” imbalanced, off-kilter on the building and without a proper name. Such abrupt removal of the name alone, without the accompaniment of educational initiatives, is just an act of virtue signaling on the part of the college. 

The erasure leaves an emptiness and cancellation, rather than information for visitors about both Mead and the college’s disgrace and indiscretion. While the college has formed an education committee on the chapel, writing in an April 2023 email to the college community of the committee’s purpose to  “develop recommendations for engaging with [history] so we can learn from it,” the committee has not taken any tangible public steps toward education since its creation two years ago. Simply removing the name from the building is the easiest, yet least substantive, way for the college to appear like it is making amends for giving one of the most important buildings on campus a controversial name and for the history of the college’s own eugenicist beliefs.

Given the college’s own history of promoting eugenicist ideas through its course offerings in the early 20th century, the college is incorrect to use Mead as a scapegoat for its own wrongdoings. As a recent column by the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby revealed, Middlebury faculty and administrators were directly advocating eugenics in the years after Mead served as Governor of Vermont. Jacoby reported that Paul Moody, president of the college from 1921 to 1945, was “vehement about the inferiority of French Canadians in the wider community. ‘The whole French Canadian population could be wiped out of Middlebury and no one would miss it,’” Moody told Henry F. Perkins, a University of Vermont professor and chair of a statewide committee on eugenics.

As Douglas addresses in his complaint, the chapel naming debacle is related to the issue of cancel culture and the lack of diversity of political thought on liberal campuses like Middlebury. There are not many speakers of diverse views invited to campus, especially since the Charles Murray disaster in 2017, and even when speakers with divergent beliefs are invited, their events often don’t get a lot of attendance. This is no surprise: Only 7% of respondents in Middlebury’s Zeitgeist 5.0 survey identified as even “leaning conservative.” According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s 2024 free speech rankings, Middlebury was number 233 of 248 colleges for free speech, based on criteria of “comfort expressing ideas,” “administrative support” and “openness.” In our experience, Middlebury classrooms are often echo chambers where similarly minded professors and students agree with one another without taking genuinely varied or controversial stances. 

The college’s erasure of Mead is reflective of a broader culture of cancelation and silencing when it comes to critical topics at Middlebury. While some spaces and pockets of students on campus certainly foster genuine discussion, we find that there is often a marked lack of meaningful conversation about controversial topics on campus. Students either try to “out woke each other” or remain silent, scared of being canceled by their peers. If students are not able to engage meaningfully with ideas with which they disagree, we fear that silence will manifest itself in dangerous ways. There is a serious risk in how many people here currently assume ideological homogeneity on campus. We call for general self-reflection; students must consider how Middlebury, like many liberal spaces in our polarized country more broadly, can be an echo-chamber and a breeding ground for automatic cancel culture, and balance this with efforts to welcome more conversations of diverse opinions. 

This editorial hopes to break that silence with a call for introspection from students, faculty, administrators and the institution itself on how we isolate ourselves from disagreement and bury the difficult reality of the college’s history. 

Our hope is that the educational committee will soon publicize its work and spark discussions on these topics on campus, but it must not be left to one single committee to do so. In writing what is perhaps to be our most contentious editorial thus far, we are finally addressing a topic our organization has not editorialized on for over two years in order to right the college’s past wrongs and for progress to be made on campus  — no matter the consequences, controversy or cancellation.


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