A Donor Intent Controversy at Middlebury College

In an essay published on May 17 at The James G. Martin Center, the Roundtable’s Joanne Florino examines whether a eugenicist’s name should be removed from Middlebury College’s chapel nearly 100 years after his death. John Abner Mead built the chapel with charitable dollars, and his family recently filed a lawsuit to fight the removal of his name.  

Read the full article here. Excerpts below: 

“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. 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 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.” 

Continuing reading this article at The James G. Martin Center.  

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