Douglas suit against college ‘cancel culture’ proceeds

By Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First
A Vermont judge has agreed that a lawsuit filed against Middlebury College officials for their controversial and unannounced decision to improperly remove the name from the historic Mead Memorial Chapel can proceed.

Dr. John Abner Mead, a former Vermont governor, to mark his 50th class reunion from Middlebury College, donated $75,000 in 1914 to build the iconic Mead Memorial Chapel in the middle of campus to honor his ancestors.

The college quietly removed the Mead name off the marble building on the morning of Sept. 27, 2021 for what it believed was his role “in promoting eugenics policies in the state that led to the involuntary sterilization of an estimated 250,” the lawsuit said.

Former Governor James H. Douglas, serving as a court-appointed special administrator of the Mead estate, filed a breach of contract lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court in Middlebury in late March against the college president and the Board of Fellows, better known as the trustees.

Douglas said Middlebury College got it wrong and succumbed to “cancel culture” conduct. The four-term Governor said he boycotted his 50th Middlebury College reunion in 2022 because he was upset by its baseless decision.

Retired Vermont Judge Robert A. Mello, known for his love of history, was appointed special to hear the civil case and recently filed a 7-page ruing rejecting a defense motion by the college to dismiss the lawsuit. 

The final outcome may center on whether the chapel naming comes under gift law, as suggested by the college, or contract law, as suggested by Douglas, the judge noted.

“Whether framed under contract or gift law, proof that a perpetual naming right was intended ultimately will have to satisfy an elevated standard of clarity to be enforceable,” Mello wrote.

“The court declines to catalogue the evidence referred to in the complaint that currently may point in one direction or the other. For now, the question is simply whether Governor Douglas has alleged that such a naming right was intended. The complaint is fairly read to include such an allegation,” Mello said. 

The college, among its claims, maintained only the Vermont Attorney General’s Office is allowed to intercede in the legal question. Mello said that is not how he sees it. He said it is not up to the AG in Vermont. 

“More to the point, Middlebury has come forward with no concrete authority that would compel Vermont’s Attorney General to take action in a case of this sort or require her to consider it. Nor has it convincingly explained why the Attorney General would have any interest at all in enforcing the disputed naming right ‘condition’ in this case,” Mello wrote.

The lawyer for Douglas said she was happy with the decision because “Middlebury College was the center of eugenics teaching in Vermont for more than half a century. It was in fact, a ‘Eugenics Factory,’ said attorney Brooke Dingledine of the law firm Valsangiacomo, Detora & McQuesten in Barre.”

“The Court’s decision denying the College’s motion to dismiss will allow the case to move forward so that we can demonstrate the College’s stunning hypocrisy and bad faith in scapegoating Governor Mead, a descent and honorable man, by using him as their fall-guy, while the College swept its own 50 years history of teaching Eugenics under the rug,” Dingledine said.

“Instead of apologizing for its racism against French-Canadians or for its role in teaching Eugenics for years after the horrors of the Holocaust were known to the world, Middlebury College chose to break its sacred promise to Governor Mead and has thrown him under the bus,” she said in an email. 

The college’s lawyer, Justin Barnard of the Burlington law firm Dinse, referred questions to Middlebury’s communications and marketing office.

“Regarding the current litigation, the court’s recent decision has postponed a ruling on the merits of the case until the parties have a chance to develop the factual record. We are confident that when the court does reach the merits, it will agree that Middlebury was fully within its rights to remove the Mead name from its chapel, according to college spokeswoman Julia Ferrante.

“It’s also worth noting also that Vermont’s courts rarely grant motions to dismiss, and therefore postponing a ruling on the merits at this early stage is not unusual,” she said.

Ferrante noted the college still supports the removal of the name.

“We stand by our decision to remove the Mead name from the chapel, which remains a central gathering place and focal point of our campus. 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,” she said in an email. 

Douglas filed included nearly 300 pages of exhibits supporting his 79-page lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court in Middlebury.

He noted Middlebury College officials, in trying to justify their actions, got both the history of the building and its name completely wrong.

The building was never named for Mead, a Rutland physician and industrialist, former Vermont Governor, and Middlebury College Trustee, Douglas said. It was for his ancestors.

“Ironically, Middlebury College, while erroneously recounting the history of the Mead Memorial Chapel, claiming it was dedicated to John Abner Mead instead of by him in honor of his family ancestors, has obliterated any memory of the monumental selfless acts and altruistic contributions he made to his nation, state, county, town, church” and his college, the lawsuit noted.

Judge Mello in his decision directed the lawyers to confer within the following two weeks and develop a schedule for the case for the court to consider. He also urged the two sides to include mediation in the proposed schedule.

“Middlebury argues that no naming right, much less a perpetual one, was contemplated at all. Governor Douglas argues instead that the circumstances imply it, and he seeks the opportunity to develop more evidence in support of it,” Mello wrote.

When the lawsuit was first filed, Douglas agreed to a defense request to have extra time to file its official response to the court. The college said it needed time to do more research on the case. Douglas said at the time he hoped it would give Middlebury time to find the true history.

“The vile accusation conflates historical events that occurred two decades apart declaring Mead responsible for legislation enacted 19 years after his Farewell Address and more than a decade after his death,” Douglas said in court papers.

The lawsuit said Middlebury College has unfortunately and erroneously branded Mead “a eugenicist and proclaims that he is responsible for the tragic sterilization of Vermonters and Native peoples.”

The Mead estate seeks to have the college restore the proper name to the library. If the college refuses, the lawsuit seeks to have compensatory and punitive compensation provided to the Mead estate based on the huge financial benefit the college has received for more than 100 years from the conditional gift.

The lawsuit said the building, which cost $73,373, is worth more than $2.2 million in present value.

Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, who has served since 2015, recommended the name removal to a subcommittee of the full Board of Trustees during the summer of 2021. The Prudential Committee voted unanimously to adopt Patton’s recommendation, the college said at the time.

Patton and George C. Lee, the chair of the trustees in 2021, issued a statement to the community explaining their actions the day the sign was taken down. 

“We want to stress up front that this was a process involving deep reflection and discussion. No issue like this should be undertaken lightly or often,” it said in part while retelling its understanding of the gift and Mead. 

Douglas, a 1972 Middlebury graduate, is one of the most prominent alums for the liberal arts college, which had more than a $1.5 billion endowment in 2021, the lawsuit said. The Springfield, Mass. native served as a Vermont legislator representing Middlebury for three terms fresh out of college and became House Majority leader. He became an aide to Gov. Richard Snelling and served 12 years as Vermont Secretary of State and 8 years as Vermont State Treasurer. He was elected Vermont Governor from 2003 to 2011.

When Douglas ended his final term as Governor in January 2011, Middlebury College named Douglas as its “Executive in Residence” — a post he has retained. He instructs academic classes and does independent studies with Middlebury students. Middlebury had said earlier this year it planned to use Douglas again this fall and Douglas has said he plans to be on campus. 

The lawsuit, at last word, has had no known impact on his contract.

Mead, a Fair Haven native, was at Middlebury College when he interrupted his studies to enlist in the Union Army with the Vermont Regiment (1862-63) and participated in various battles, including Gettysburg. He returned to graduate in 1864, taught high school briefly, and received a master’s degree at Middlebury in 1867. He began his medical studies at UVM and eventually earned a medical degree at Columbia University in 1868. 

Mead practiced medicine in Rutland from 1870 to 1888 and also served as Vermont Surgeon General. He was offered the post as chair of the medical department at the University of Vermont.  He was elected to the Vermont Senate, later served as Rutland City’s first mayor and was then elected to the House.

He became Lieutenant Governor (1908-1910) and then Governor (1910-12). Mead returned to Rutland to become a bank president and later president of Howe Scale and was a director of the Rutland Railroad. He served on the board of trustees of Middlebury, UVM and Norwich University and received honorary degrees from each.

Mead, a Vermont delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912, was seriously considered for the vice-presidential nomination for President William Taft, the lawsuit notes. It includes a picture of campaign memorabilia from the possible VP run.

Mead, who died at age 78 at his Rutland home in 1920, is buried nearby in a family plot in Evergreen Cemetery on West Street. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Caledonian-Record newspaper in St. Johnsbury.

Categories: Education, History

10 replies »

  1. Apparently this educated person does not know that you don’t change history over the years after history has already happened. Her statement of the understanding of the history of the building has evolved over the years is profoundly stupid but her statement of the colleges commitment to open expression is just that , open expression to change history with a twisted mind!

    • Thank you for doing this as History is a guide to our younger generation to see what a wonderfully country we have become. But to also allow us to become even better!
      Best wishes to both of you.

  2. A sensible decision, had his name been removed then every Planned Parenthood in Vermont would have to shut down given the founders intent of eugenics, specifically reducing the number of Black babies.

  3. Great, we ALL need to fight this crazy ideology at the level and with the expertise we each have – WITHOUT intimidation.

    Speaking of which – on David (Ponytail) Zuckerman’s book tour where he falsely touts that conservatives are “banning” books – an out & out LIE taking into account the Dictionary’s definition of the word “ban” – he has tagging along with him a group of people comprised mostly of African Americans (I imagine that ethnicity/race must possess the greatest degree of proficiency in the realm of book banning) as well as a white or two who all proceed to laughably attempt to ever-so-ferociously intimidate any VT citizens who have the colossal gall to disagree with his propaganda. One groupie, in particular, has apparently been instructed to jump out of her seat whenever anyone opposes his Marxist fairy tale of books being banned and shout down & browbeat the opposing party until they commence REFRAINING from utilizing their RIGHT of FREEDOM of SPEECH during these events. RIGHT, Suckerman?

    Suckerman – YOU are a cowardly, disgraceful, power-mongering, political hack who ought to be impeached before you ever have the ability to assume another office in this state. NO ONE fears YOU or your WANNA-BE dime-store goons you use as PLANTS at your moronic book tour. Oh, as a transplanted Vermonter just as YOU are, I was born & raised in ROOSEVELT, NEW YORK. Try THAT on for size, “Diversity” Queen!

    • I was born and raised in New Hyde Park. Your family lived in Roosevelt prior to and/or during “the big migration” or did they choose to remain there AFTER “the big migration?” I am probably a lot older than you and I had relatives in Hempstead, West Hempstead, Freeport and Valley Stream. A different time, a different mindset.

      I can’t stand Zuckerman, but I do believe that his book tour is about Free Speech, not all the tired pejoratives found here. Do you think you could write a piece without all the name-calling and barrage of adjectives? I’d love to read it.

      • New Hyde Park – You resided in New Hyde Park? No “diversity” whatsoever there……was your nuclear family “racist”, perchance? Or inclined toward “white supremacy” or “terrorism” as bumbling Biden might infer?? And certainly, having relatives who lived in Hempstead or Freeport doesn’t count for beans, for you resided in the coveted lily-white suburbia, far from towns such as Roosevelt.

        As far as changing my writing style to suit your sensitivities, I cannot. I calls ’em as I sees ’em & your comrade is a big phony bologna opportunist seizing upon the current fashion of using racial divide to install Communism/Marxism in order to conquer – and his people follow like lambs to the slaughter.

        By the way, WHAT name-calling & “tired” pejoratives? Adjectives simply describe, and I described aptly & accurately. And in doing so? I used my OWN FREEDOM of SPEECH, unlike your boy who simply uses lies.

        And I sincerely doubt that you’re older than me, because generally with age, comes wisdom. And being woke surely isn’t wise.


      • KG- Did your parents send you and your siblings to the Roosevelt school system? If not, why not? How about the other White kids on your block?

        My nuclear and extended family consisted of Jews who fled the pogroms in Russia and from the Nazis in WW2 (those that made it out), so don’t preach to me about diversity and inclusion. My father owned a butcher shop in South Brooklyn which I worked in from age 15 to 25 and the demographic was Irish, Polish, Spanish, Muslim and mostly 1st generation Italian customers. A lot of Jew-haters in that bunch and since they all thought we were Italian (I used to hear all the comments about one of our very Jewish employees. Very few Black customers, they just didn’t live in South Brooklyn My father wanted me to know where the money came from so that we could live in NHP and send me and my brother to college with no loans. How dare you make any assumptions about me or my politics.

        My block as well as my neighborhood in NHP consisted of working class first and second generation Italian, Irish, Jewish, German and Chinese residents. There were no Black families living in the entire Herricks school district. Why, I don’t know. 60 years later, this is the breakdown of kids in the Herricks school district: 22.5% White, 0.6% Black, 69.8% Asian or Asian/Pacific Islander, 5.4% Hispanic/Latino.
        By the way, my first college girlfriend was Black, RICH and Black, her father being a famous musician. They lived in Kings Point and not one of the integrated neighborhoods on Long Island.

        Like I said before, how about you and your “comrades” stop with the name-calling, finger pointing and innuendos and come up with some RERAL SOLUTIONS for the problems we face as Americans and as citizens of this planet.

        And lastly, KG, you proudly mentioned your social service record, which I agree is impressive. Would you want them to read the harangue you wrote here about DZ? I wish I could write as well as you do, but not with the hate and disinformation you spew on this site to entertain your cronies.

  4. Bravo Zulu Jim.
    Glad someone is standing up to old USSR tactics of suppression.

  5. Cancel culture is not the most self-reflective. They do understand that mankind is a sinner, the easiest thing in the world is to find a person who has sinned, committed some type of crime/blight/act against another, so there for they should be terminated, loss of job, loss of freedom.

    In this scenario the one finding the sin gets to play God. It is the ultimate act of pride, I’m right and you’re wrong. it is the ultimate act of self-righteousness. It is the ultimate act of narcissism, of a sociopath, of a psychopath. It is life, as seen when every society makes themselves God, makes their government a theology. This is the course we are plotting in Vermont. Vermont Strong! Our government will provide and protect us for and from all the things we need.

    If we go along this road, we know the destiny, the outcome, it’s written in history, over and over and over again

    We only need to change our direction. Truth, Love, Joy……Peace.

    Cancel culture is thousands of years old, it has never produced anything of worth.

  6. Thank you Mike Donoghue for the informative update on this issue and thank you Jim Douglas for bringing this issue to the public’s attention. I find it most interesting especially after the Charles Murry fiasco.