A Donor-Intent Controversy at Middlebury College

Should a eugenicist’s name be removed from the chapel he built? It’s complicated.

An unusual donor-intent controversy at Middlebury College has sparked more than the typical public attention. In September 2021, college officials announced that they had removed the name of former Vermont Gov. John Mead from the campus chapel because of his support for eugenics policies in the early 1900s. Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas is now representing the Mead family and has filed a breach of contract suit against Middlebury.

Born in 1841, John Abner Mead was a physician and businessman who served in various public offices in Vermont between 1892 and late 1910, when he assumed a two-year term as the state’s governor. An 1864 alumnus of Middlebury, he believed in the fight to end slavery and had interrupted his studies there to serve in the Civil War as a member of the 12th Vermont Infantry Regiment. Mead died in January 1920.

In 1914, Mead offered to build a chapel on his alma mater’s campus in honor of the 50th anniversary of his graduation. By the time the chapel was completed in 1916, Mead’s gift totaled $75,000 (over $2 million in today’s money). Middlebury named the structure the Mead Memorial Chapel, but the intent of the naming is in dispute. Middlebury claimed, in its official announcement of the change, “The building’s name honored him and his wife, Mary Madelia Sherman.” Other sources—and the current lawsuit—say otherwise. Gov. Douglas included a copy of Mead’s original letter in the complaint he filed with the Vermont Superior Court on March 24. That document indicates that Mead’s naming intention was, in fact, to honor his ancestors.

There is no question that John Mead expressed support for the horrific eugenics movement of the early 20th century.There is no question that John Mead expressed both interest in, and support for, the horrific eugenics movement of the early 20th century. He was certainly not alone in advocating for what, in the first four decades of that century, was regarded as “sound science” by many prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some of the nation’s largest philanthropies supported eugenics research, including the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation, a deplorable chapter in the history of American philanthropy.

Carnegie, which funded such research for over 40 years (and has noted that it did so “with the expressed support of America’s mainstream scientific community”) issued an apology in the fall of 2020. The following fall, Rockefeller Foundation president Dr. Rajiv J. Shah issued a statement announcing, “The Rockefeller Foundation is currently reckoning with our own history in relation to eugenics.” Also in 2021, Planned Parenthood admitted that Sanger’s “racist alliances and belief in eugenics have caused irreparable damage to the health and lives of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and many others.”

In its decision to pull the Mead name from its chapel, Middlebury was part of this tidal wave of “rethinking” and “reimagining,” resulting from social upheavals across the country. In the spring of 2021, both chambers of the Vermont Legislature unanimously approved resolutions that acknowledged and apologized for the passage of a 1931 law that targeted state residents deemed “idiots,” “imbeciles,” “feeble-minded,” or “insane” and resulted in 253 sterilizations over a 10-year period. However, when Middlebury announced its decision to pull the Mead name from its campus chapel, it chose to target the first piece of eugenics legislation introduced in the state—a 1912 bill from John Mead’s term as governor.

Mead made some of his more prominent comments in support of eugenics in his October 1912 farewell address, where he focused on “a class of individuals in whose mental or nervous construction there is something lacking.” He advocated that such individuals be identified and segregated, that marriage laws be written with the goal of “restrict[ing] the propagation of defective children,” and that consideration be given to “the advisability of the adoption of the operation of vasectomy as a prevention for the spread of hereditary taints and diseases.”

But as Mercedes de Guardiola points out in “‘Segregation or Sterilization’: Eugenics in the 1912 Vermont State Legislative Session,” “Although Mead’s speech officially introduced eugenics as a public policy, both marriage restriction and segregation of ‘defectives’ already existed in various forms in the state. […] The only truly new policy was eugenical sterilization.” And Mead had neither endorsed the implementation of such a policy, nor included consideration of female sterilization in his remarks.

From what we know—and the Middlebury College community seems to agree—Mead’s involvement with eugenics policy was brief.The bill in question passed both chambers after Mead left the governor’s office and was vetoed by his successor, primarily because he believed its proposals regarding eugenical sterilization would be legally unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional. From what we know—and the Middlebury College community seems to agree—Mead’s involvement with eugenics policy was brief, and he occupied himself with business interests in the last years of his life.

Unfortunately, an active eugenics movement in Vermont persisted and intensified well after John Mead’s time as governor and for two decades after his death in 1920. In 1925, University of Vermont professor Henry F. Perkins launched a Eugenics Survey to collect the names of individuals in state institutions, Vermont families deemed to have inferior genetic predispositions, and other “undesirables,” including French-Canadians and members of the Abenaki Nation. Many state leaders and heads of state institutions voluntarily contributed names to the survey and went on to participate in another venture led by Perkins—the Vermont Commission on Country Life. Despite its pastoral trappings, the commission’s 1931 report focused on preserving “the old Vermont stock.”

Following unsuccessful attempts in 1912-13 and 1927, 1931 also saw the passage of eugenics legislation in “An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization,” which called for a statewide pro-eugenics educational campaign. The law passed both chambers of the Vermont Legislature with comfortable margins (22-8 in the Senate and 140-75 in the House) and was signed by Governor Stanley Wilson on March 31. Like his predecessor, Gov. John Weeks, who chaired citizens’ committees for the Eugenics Survey, Wilson publicly supported eugenics controls. In his 1931 inaugural address, he expressed his concern that “the number of our insane and feeble-minded is constantly increasing,” adding, “The Supervisors of the Insane in their biennial report recommend the enactment of a properly safeguarded sterilization law. You will do well to give this matter serious consideration.” Any earlier concerns about the constitutionality of compulsory eugenic sterilization had been eliminated in 1927 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s near-unanimous ruling in Buck v. Bell, which famously held that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

From 1931 until 1957, 253 documented sterilizations of men and women took place in Vermont. There may well have been more such procedures. While consent—by patient or legal guardian—was required by law, it may have been circumvented in some cases. This occurred even though support for public policies based on eugenics was already declining by the time Vermont’s law permitted sterilization. Funding for what had once been regarded as a “sound science” began to disappear, with the Carnegie Institution, for example, withdrawing support in 1939 from the very Eugenics Research Office it had helped create in 1904. What had begun in the late 19th century with a mindset of “improving” human stock through selective breeding had morphed into the segregation and elimination of those deemed inferior, and the increased public awareness of the ongoing horrors in Nazi Germany rendered both “positive” and “negative” eugenics intolerable.

If naming the chapel in perpetuity was a stipulation, then the college should not retain the value of Mead’s gift.So what should we make of John Mead and Middlebury’s decision to remove his name from the chapel that he built? Is it a violation of donor intent? If the naming of the chapel in perpetuity was a stipulation of the gift, then, yes, it is a deliberate violation, and the college should not retain the present value of Mead’s gift.

But does Mead’s short-lived involvement in Vermont’s eugenics history warrant Middlebury’s decision, even though it violates donor intent? We can safely assume that Middlebury’s president at the time of the gift was well aware of Mead’s politics, as were the college trustees who happily accepted his money.

Is the chapel so iconic that Middlebury cannot allow it to be “tarnished” by Mead’s name? When Mead asked that the chapel stand at the highest point on campus, Middlebury enthusiastically agreed. And it was the college itself, as Gov. Douglas has noted, that made the chapel a key part of its brand in “trying to attract donors and students to attend.”

Most importantly, is there a thoughtful and educational approach that keeps Mead’s name on the chapel but also uses this historic landmark to tell the story of John Mead, while also offering a desperately needed and timely lesson about the dangers of simple solutions and the need to temper scientific knowledge and data with ethics and empathy?

In October 2021, Deb Billado, then-chairwoman of the Vermont GOP, wrote an op-ed decrying Middlebury’s decision. In that piece she commented, “Ironically, Governor Mead was one of the most progressive governors at the turn of the 20th century. He established funding for the Austine School for the Deaf and Blind. He strengthened child labor laws. He pushed for criminal justice via parole reforms. He established a direct primary and advocated for campaign finance reform.” However, there was no “irony” involved. Mead’s interest in eugenics was an integral part of his progressivism, as it was for so many others—economists, educators, politicians, philanthropists, and scientists alike.

Facing the effects of rapid and dramatic change across the country in the wake of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, progressive reformers opted for more government regulation and social engineering around what they deemed “root causes.” In that environment, advancing human flourishing was reduced to eradicating “bad genes,” and the virtues of charity and humility took a backseat to “scientific advancement.” The lesson is clear: The best of us can make the worst mistakes when we lose sight of our common humanity and our inevitable frailties.

I can’t think of a better message to be attached to the Mead Memorial Chapel.

Joanne Florino is the Adam Meyerson Distinguished Fellow in Philanthropic Excellence at Philanthropy Roundtable.