UCL to begin process of renaming buildings named after eugenicists

Report into history of eugenics at UCL sets out series of measures to deal with contentious past, but some inquiry members claim it does not go far enough

February 28, 2020
UCL sign

An inquiry has led to UCL stating it will begin the process of renaming spaces named after famous eugenicists, following a report into its historic link with the controversial field of eugenics.

One of the main recommendations from the inquiry, which was led by Iyiola Solanke, chair in European Union law at the University of Leeds, was to rename spaces and awards where the namesake is associated with eugenics, such as Francis Galton, the originator of the term, and Karl Pearson.

It also recommended that UCL issue “a meaningful and effective apology” to acknowledge the harm and hurt caused by its complicity in eugenics to people in BAME and targeted communities.

Galton, a Victorian scientist known as the “father of eugenics”, provided UCL with a hefty endowment and his personal archive.   

Michael Arthur, president of UCL, said that he accepted the report and its recommendations in principle and would also recommend that the university’s buildings naming and renaming committee start the formal process for the relevant buildings and prizes.

According to the report, naming buildings after the “father of eugenics” and others who supported it, makes it seem as if UCL condones the work done by those individuals and creates “an unwelcoming environment for students and staff who identify as BAME, disabled or come from a low-income background”.

The report said that its recommendations, which also include ensuring that BAME and disabled staff are recruited and retained, as well as decolonising the curricula in all departments, are necessary “so that UCL can reconcile its past with its current values and its future”.

In response, the university said that it would also fund new scholarships to study race and racism, ensure UCL staff and students learn about the history and legacy of eugenics and create a two-year research post to further examine UCL’s history of eugenics.

However, a large proportion of the committee said that the inquiry did not go far enough and refused to sign the report.

Joe Cain, professor of history and philosophy of biology at UCL and a member of the inquiry who refused to sign, wrote online that he felt the inquiry did not cover eugenics widely enough. “By just focusing on race it ignored the fact that most eugenics research and advocacy targeted low-income European migrants into England, defended antisemitism and nativism, and worked against people with disabilities of all kinds,” he said.

He added that it focuses too much on one villain – Galton – and therefore lets others off the hook, particularly those outside UCL who contributed to eugenics.

The report itself acknowledges that there were “constraints on time and resources”.  

The 10 inquiry members who refused to sign published their own set of recommendations that they presented to the president. These include calling for signage to explain the reasons for the renaming, “including the historical linkage of named individuals to eugenics advocacy and scientific racism”.

They also say that all departments must devise action plans “to describe and reflect upon how they, their predecessors, and their disciplines participated in the history of eugenics”.

Professor Arthur said that he had established a working group to “consider how UCL can respond to all recommendations received”.

Some took issue with the fact that the inquiry did not investigate the London Conference on Intelligence, a secret annual event that heard from white supremacists and was attended by controversial journalist Toby Young.

The events were organised by James Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer in psychology at the university, and included contributions from a researcher who previously advocated child rape.

However, UCL decided to publish a report from a separate inquiry into the conference. This report was finalised in 2018 but UCL said that it had held back from publishing “because of the significant amount of personal information contained in the report”.

On 28 February, “in the interests of ensuring transparency in the public interest”, a redacted version was published.

The report said that “the university was not informed in advance about the speakers and content of the conference series, as it should have been for the event to be allowed to go ahead”.

According to the report, Dr Thompson did not highlight that the events would be controversial or fill out the event booking form with details about the event. Therefore, “it allowed UCL to be associated with a particular approach to a controversial issue in a way that was evidently unbalanced”.


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