Posted on August 24, 2023

The Virtue-Signaling Behind the Renaming of the Middlebury College Chapel

Peter W. Wood, The Spectator, August 21, 2023

Early on the morning of September 27, 2021, Middlebury College president Laurie Patton had a stone bearing the name of the campus chapel removed from the building. It was done deftly. I don’t imagine she showed up with her own hammer and chisel, but the campus groundsmen executed her orders. Later that day, Patton and the chairman of the board of trustees sent out a message to the community announcing that they had de-named Mead Memorial Chapel, which henceforth would be known simply as Middlebury Chapel. The de-naming was a stealth operation. Outside of a small circle, no one knew it was coming.


{snip} In 2020, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) listed Middlebury as one of America’s “ten worst colleges for free speech.” {snip}


At the center of this simmer is Dr. Laurie Patton, who is plainly on the side of contemporary progressive ideals. What follows is a story about Mead Memorial Chapel, but it is also a story about President Patton.


{snip} John Mead was just a boy from Vermont who served in the 12th Vermont infantry regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War and saw action at Gettysburg. Later he went to college and then to medical school and had a thriving medical practice for more than twenty years before running for public office. So far as anyone has determined, Mead was untouched by the stain of slavery. Neither he nor his family (pioneer settlers of the Green Mountains) prospered from human bondage.

But the sorts of folks who make it their business to disparage leaders of past generations, even those of modest stature, have other stones to hurl and other poison arrows in their quivers. An independent researcher, Mercedes De Guardiola, found the lethal dart in Governor Mead’s farewell address in 1912, in which the governor “endorsed for the first time a eugenical policy to address a longstanding fear of an increase in ‘degeneracy’ in the state.” De Guardiola published her article, “‘Segregation or Sterilization’: Eugenics in the 1912 Vermont State Legislative Session” in the journal Vermont History in 2019.

Again, one might think this observation would be of small moment. “Eugenics” was once a popular cause among American progressives — and Mead, who was after all a medical man, could be expected to have echoed the prevailing opinion of his time. What Mead actually said on the occasion was brief and uncontroversial. As Tunku Varadarajan summarized it in the Wall Street Journal, “Middlebury’s Scapegoat for Eugenics,” Mead “supported the denial of marriage licenses to syphilitics, rapists and ‘habitual’ alcoholics. He also advocated vasectomies for those with hereditary diseases.” Nineteen years later, the state of Vermont did in fact pass a sterilization law, but it was long after Mead’s death (1920) — and no one seriously thinks Mead had anything to do with it.

Even small colleges, however, must find demons to exorcize — and the busybodies at today’s Middlebury College were ready. This brings us to September 2021, when the college demonstrated its moral rectitude by stripping the Mead name from the chapel “due to his role in the eugenics movement.”

This was done with no public debate or weighing up of contrary perspectives. As I said at the beginning of this account, the action was announced by a “message to the Middlebury community” from President Patton and the chairman of the board of trustees. They explained that the college trustees had followed “a careful and deliberative process,” one that involved “care and deep reflection,” and “awareness” of the “deep personal, spiritual and cultural meaning for generations of Middlebury people.”

The effusive self-congratulations aside, the board members somehow overlooked Middlebury’s own extensive involvement in the eugenics movement. Beginning in 1925, Middlebury made the study of eugenics mandatory for all freshmen as part of its “Orientating Course.” That was five years after Dr. Mead died. The course included a lecture, “What Has Civilization to Expect from Eugenics.” According to old college catalogs, Middlebury had also been teaching eugenics in the 1910s and well into the 1940s, absent any connection to Mead.


A good many Middlebury alumni are not happy. One reached out to me early on, and I soon found myself in conversation with half a dozen; they introduced me to Vermont’s former Republican governor Jim Douglas, who has turned his displeasure about the “de-naming” into an interesting lawsuit.

The immediate news is that a judge has ruled that the lawsuit can proceed, “against Middlebury College officials for their controversial and unannounced decision to improperly remove the name from the historic Mead Memorial Chapel.”


One might think that abiding by the law would include honoring the contract with Dr. Mead, and that a truly inclusive community would take some trouble to include the generations of people who built the college. That long-simmering culture war at Middlebury is growing warmer.

There are some larger lessons in this affair. First, the de-naming of Mead Memorial Chapel is a local instance of the determination of America’s elite to erase our past. It is of a piece with removing historical statues, the imposing the fictions of the “1619 Project” on school curricula, disparaging the Constitution as an instrument of oppression and the myriad other ways that the left now seeks to despoil the country of its pride and self-respect. The cultural vandalism has gone so far that it has become an everyday thing.

Second, canceling the name of the chapel as a gesture towards repudiating “eugenics” is spectacular in its oddness. No one in contemporary America espouses eugenics except fringe figures such as Princeton’s Peter Singer, who believes it is a good idea to extinguish the lives of the disabled. If eugenics has cultural descendants, they are the advocates of easy access to abortion, but their rationale is the freedom of women, not the improvement of the species. Yet Middlebury is not alone in retrospectively canceling figures who once supported eugenics. Rachel Lu reported in the Nation that in 2020 Stanford University “announced that all campus features named for David Starr Jordan would be renamed, as the former university president was a driving force of the eugenics movement.” She also quotes Middlebury professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies Laurie Essig to the effect that President Patton didn’t go far enough: “eugenics were — and continue to be — central to the way American elites see the world.”

Essig’s comment may be a clue as to what this is all about. Attacking the long-dead eugenics movement is a “woke”-left way to expand on the conceits of systemic racism and America as a pseudo-nation run by a hereditary aristocracy. Anti-eugenicism sees itself not as beating a dead horse but as a noble attack on current day structures of oppression. This is entirely a delusion, but we can now see that it has a delusionary context — its own conspiracy theory in which de-naming Mead Memorial Chapel strikes a blow for social justice against the hidden patriarchy. All this can be done behind the cover of telling the community that the college just wanted to clean up a blemish on its past.