Mead Chapel at Middlebury College will now be referred to as “The Middlebury Chapel” or just “the chapel.” Photo by Abigail Chang

The authors are news reporters for the Middlebury Campus, where a version of this article was first published. 

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s Mead Memorial Chapel, named for John Mead, a Vermont governor and member of the class of 1864, lost the name Mead Monday in acknowledgement of its namesake’s role in promoting eugenics in Vermont during the early 1900s.

The piece of stone bearing the chapel’s name had been removed by Monday morning.

In a message to the community, college President Laurie Patton and George Lee, chair of the board of trustees, announced that a working group and the trustees had engaged in a “careful and deliberative process” and decided to remove the Mead name. “We want to stress upfront that this was a process involving deep reflection and discussion. No issue like this should be undertaken lightly or often,” they wrote.

The chapel will now be referred to as “The Middlebury Chapel” or just “the chapel.” 

In 1914, Mead and his wife, Mary Madelia Sherman, donated $74,000 to the college to create a new chapel. In 1912, two years before his donation, Mead gave a farewell address to the Vermont Legislature in which he advocated for the use of eugenic theory in creating legislation and policy. His comments in that speech about marriage restrictions, segregation and sterilization inspired the research behind the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and led to the legalization of voluntary eugenical sterilization two decades later.

The renaming follows the unanimous adoption of resolutions by the Vermont House and Senate earlier this year to “sincerely apologize and express sorrow and regret” for the state’s role in the eugenics movement, including the forced sterilization of 250 Vermonters. 

A Middlebury College working group convened in May after the Vermont Legislature’s apology to examine the college’s relationship to Vermont’s eugenics history and the role of Mead. 

After reviewing archival research regarding the former governor and the history of eugenics in Vermont, considering the history and use of the chapel today, and reflecting on actions taken by other organizations that acknowledged historical connections to eugenics, the group recommended that the Mead name be removed.

“Following its review, citing his central role in advancing eugenics policies that resulted in harm to hundreds of Vermonters, the working group determined that ‘the name of former Governor Mead on an iconic building in the center of campus is not consistent with what Middlebury stands for in the 21st century,’” Lee and Patton wrote in their email Monday.

Patton then sent the working group’s recommendation to the board of trustees’ prudential committee, which voted unanimously to remove the name.

The email from Patton and Lee also said the decision was “not about erasing history, but just the opposite — engaging with it so we can learn from it.” They said the college “will be candid” regarding the decision to remove the Mead name where there are currently references to the chapel and that they are considering “educational signage.”

The Mead name at Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel was removed from above the chapel door Monday morning. Photo by Abigail Chang

The chapel is an iconic feature of Middlebury’s landscape and branding. It marks entry into the Middlebury community as the site of convocation, appears on merchandise and can be seen far and wide due to its location at the highest point on campus. 

In addition, alumni of the college, along with faculty and staff and their children, can use Mead Chapel for weddings.

Mead’s financial gift to the college was not conditional upon his name being put on the building, so the college is not obligated to return the gift to the Mead family. Changing the name is not a fundraising opportunity, and there are currently no plans to rename the chapel, according to the announcement. 

Other signage around campus containing the Mead name is expected to be altered soon. Wording on the college website has already been updated.

Abigail Chang is a general assignment reporter. She has previously written for The Middlebury Campus, Middlebury College's student newspaper.