Judge greenlights lawsuit against Middlebury College for renaming chapel

Published: Aug. 11, 2023 at 6:07 PM EDT
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MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont judge this week gave the go-ahead to a lawsuit over the renaming of a chapel at Middlebury College. Former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas is leading a suit against his alma mater and employer, Middlebury College, for renaming an iconic chapel. It’s a step forward for a case that some say pushes back on so-called cancel culture.

It’s a legal challenge that has sparked national attention.

In 1914, Republican Governor John Mead donated funds to his alma mater to build what’s now an iconic chapel in the heart of Middlebury College.

Two years ago, college leaders removed the former governor’s name from Mead Memorial Chapel. They say it’s because of his role in advancing eugenics policy in Vermont.

In his farewell speech to the Legislature, Mead recommended lawmakers adopt policies to restrict marriage, segregate and operate on so-called degenerates.

Former four-term Governor Jim Douglas sued the college for breach of contract on behalf of the Mead estate.

“This is way out of control,” Douglas said. “It’s totally disproportionate, it’s inappropriate and it’s grossly inappropriate to the memory of an otherwise good and decent man.”

Douglas says the totality of Mead’s legacy should be remembered, and he points out Middlebury taught courses on eugenics for several decades.

“Middlebury College is trying to obfuscate and cover up a legacy of eugenics scholarship and promotion by throwing Governor Mead under the bus,” Douglas said.

Douglas, who continues to teach at Middlebury, alleges the school breached a contract with Mead that the chapel would keep its name in perpetuity.

Middlebury filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They say the chapel was a gift and there was no contract and there are no rules about naming rights.

But this week, a judge ruled the lawsuit can proceed.

The college tells us: “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.”

The lawsuit comes at a time when institutions are reevaluating leaders, values and culture from the past, including that of eugenics.

In 2021, the Vermont Legislature formally apologized to people harmed by the state-sanctioned practice.

Douglas’ and Middlebury College’s legal teams now have to come back with a schedule on how to move forward with this case in the coming weeks.

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