“A History That Has Never Gone Away”: UCL Eugenics Inquiry Holds Divisive First Meeting

“A History That Has Never Gone Away”: UCL Eugenics Inquiry Holds Divisive First Meeting

The inaugural meeting of the inquiry highlighted the lingering presence of eugenics in the university’s identity.

The debate, held at the Town Hall on Friday, presented a view towards both education within UCL and outreach projects. The meeting covered three key issues regarding UCL’s history with eugenics: how the institution is perceived, the contentiously named Pearson building and Petrie museum, and UCL’s role in teaching and researching eugenics in the past, present and future. It was chaired by Professor Iyiola Solanke, a Law professor at the University of Leeds, who is also leading the inquiry.

Members of UCL’s staff and student community were invited to comment and ask questions to the panel restricted to these topics. The meeting aimed to open debate and guide the panel’s further investigations, so whilst no concrete conclusions were drawn and no action was decided upon, there were consistent requests for more information on eugenics at UCL to be made easily accessible to the academic community and wider public.

Although there were some slightly heated moments, and a lot of tutting and head shaking, the debate remained, for the most part, civil, if passionate. One particularly contentious issue was that of the separation of (pseudo)-science and its social applications, and to what extent someone like Francis Galton – a ‘founding father’ of eugenics – can be detached from his contributions to scientific racism and celebrated for his contributions to genetics, psychology, and statistics.

The idea of rechristening buildings named after the founders of eugenics was slated by those purporting that it would make the college an “international laughing stock”, with others pointing out that UCL’s standing in the national press could hardly be much worse. Students urged the panel that UCL should take exemplary action and use the attention from the press as a platform; many academics referred to UCL as a “radical” institution but received criticism for not wanting the university to be radical in this respect.

One academic pointed out that renaming buildings could have a domino effect; the Rockefeller building received its funding precisely because of UCL’s eugenics work, and this would also have to be taken into consideration.

Notably absent from the debate was the issue of how eugenics had somehow survived undetected at UCL until the scandal in January 2018, when the London Student newspaper revealed that James Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer, had been hosting the London Conference on Intelligence on campus for at least three years. Thompson has since been quietly dismissed from UCL.

Discussion often returned to how scholars should separate the past from the present, but there was no mention as to how much is still going on, and there was little indication of exactly what the inquiry will do to find the roots of Thompson’s conferences. Provost Michael Arthur assured the attendees that the processes by which the conference was able to take place have been “tightened up”, presumably referring to the room booking process which was in breach of government regulations under the Prevent program. Arthur stated it would be ‘‘nearly impossible for such an event to happen again”. He did promise a wide range of inquiry, including into financial aspects such as legacy gifts, in order to trace any money linked to eugenics funding and understand how it is now being used at UCL. Galton himself bequeathed his collection and archive to UCL, along with funding for the Chair of Eugenics. The Provost admitted that the outcome of this part of the inquiry is, at the moment, “unclear”.

The debate did often derail into a more philosophical consideration of the nature of eugenics, which polarised the room. Several students of colour admitted to feeling “distressed” by having to work and study in buildings named after scholars that wouldn’t have acknowledged them as human, and called for a “reckoning” for a perceived lack of diversity at an institution known as ‘London’s global university’. Other academics pushed the importance of separating eugenics as a negative buzzword from its societal implications, and that Galton cannot be credited for the genocidal atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, for example. The glib exclamation from one academic that “‘not everyone is perfect”’ received an almost universal groan. One student commentator noted that statements defending the critical dismantling of eugenics were almost all white.

The meeting opened with a comprehensive and soberly delivered history of eugenics at UCL by Subhadra Das, the curator of UCL Collections, and closed with an appeal to the Provost for a science museum in which to display this information. The Provost made clear that the panel “can take as long as they want to get this right”, despite the official UCL press release stating the investigation would be complete by July 2019. Whilst UCL clearly has a long way to go in its investigation, it was obvious that the institution needs to decide what stance to take, and that students and academics will no longer allow the issue of eugenics to be swept under the carpet.

Image Credit: Trendolizer