The commission comes after protests from ‘Decolonise UCL’ and will provide recommendations on the teaching of eugenics as well as its links to modern day racism.
The first meeting of the inquiry was held on Friday 23rd November and the report is due to be completed by the end of July 2019. It will look into UCL’s historical and present role in the teaching and study of eugenics, and its current status of benefits from financial instruments linked to this field.
The inquiry will be led by an independent chair, Dr Iyiola Solanke, Professor at the University of Leeds where she holds the Chair in EU Law and Social Justice. In 2017 she set up the Black Female Professors Forum and was also appointed as a member of the Valuation Tribunal for England. Other members of the panel include prominent UCL academics as well as equality representatives from the university and Students’ Union.
The inquiry will also deliver recommendations on how to manage the naming of spaces and buildings after prominent eugenicists. This comes after pressure from the student campaign ‘Decolonise UCL’, which held a demonstration outside the Provost’s office in January, led by the BME officer Ayo Olatunji. The campaign page on the SU website states: “Buildings all over campus are named after eugenicists who today we would call white supremacists…This white-centric environment in our universities is having a negative impact on BME students’ mental health, confidence and motivation.”
The Union wants Francis Galton’s name stripped from a lecture theatre and a laboratory. Galton was a Victorian scientist who coined the term ‘eugenics’ and left UCL with his personal collection and archive. He also set up an endowment that funded the country’s first Professional Chair of Eugenics.
UCL’s links with eugenics have also been foregrounded by a more recent controversy. At the start of the year it emerged that conferences on eugenics and intelligence had been secretly run at the university for at least three years by James Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer at UCL. Speakers included white supremacists and a researcher who had previously advocated child rape. Toby Young, head of government-backed New Schools Network, stepped down as Director of the New Office for Students shortly after it was revealed he had attended these conferences in May 2017.
UCL was said to be unaware of these meetings, has since severed all links with Thompson and tightened its room-booking system. In a blog post Thompson wrote that he had been forced to keep stories secret because speakers were worried that discussions about “group differences” could face “hostile interruptions and damage their careers.”
UCL Provost Michael Arthur commented on the purpose of the inquiry:
“UCL has decided to hold this inquiry to ensure that the university’s historical links to eugenics is properly examined. It is clear that this issue causes significant concern among many members of our community. We both hear and recognise the sensitivities around eugenics – particularly surrounding the work of Francis Galton – and we look forward to receiving the panel’s recommendations.
UCL works hard to create a welcoming and inclusive environment and does not tolerate any discrimination of any kind. The university is also committed to free speech and defends the freedom of academic colleagues to engage in legitimate academic activity.”