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What is the report about?

The report aims to help address UCL’s connection with the historic links to research, teaching and financial gains from eugenics, defined as a set of ideas that suggest that some groups of humans are genetically superior to others and that action should be taken to ‘improve’ the genetic makeup of the human population. Theories associated with eugenics have various racist, ablest and classist historical connotations, and are associated with historical atrocities such as the holocaust and the sterilisation of Women of Colour in America.

The report centres on the work and actions of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a scientist who made discoveries in areas such as statistics and meteorology but who also coined the term eugenics and advanced many eugenicist theories. It outlines how Galton supported the idea that intelligence was an inherited characteristic, an attitude he used to advocate for the idea of a hierarchy of races, with the report providing an array of quotes outlining his discriminatory views towards different ethnic groups including black Africans, African Americans and indigenous Australians.

The report provides many examples of Galton’s attitudes towards the working class and his consideration that “the brains of the nation lie in the higher of our classes”, and also covers his attitudes towards disabled people as another group targeted in his writings. The field of eugenics also targets many other groups, and whilst the report does not consider Galton’s attitudes to these groups directly it does “acknowledge that eugenics targeted many groups”, and “invites others to illuminate the harm done by eugenics to the lives of these groups”.

How does this link to UCL?

Whilst Galton was never enrolled to study or employed by the university, both UCL and the University of London (UoL) are closely linked with the history of eugenics. This primarily came about through a sum of £40,000 (which would amount to around £4.75m today) awarded by Galton in his will to create ‘The Galton Professorship of Eugenics’, with the first person to take this position being Karl Pearson, a protégé of Galton.

Shortly after Galton’s death a Department of Applied Statistics and Eugenics was created, and the report outlines the history of this department and this position to the present day, where the Galton Laboratory is part of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment and the professorship is now called the Galton Professor of Human Genetics.

The report considers other areas of eugenicist links to UCL, such as the naming of spaces such as the Galton Lecture Theatre and the Pearson Building, with both public and internal UCL surveys indicating that a majority would be in favour of renaming such spaces. The origin of current funds is also considered, with two funds worth over £800,000 as of 2018 being found to have direct links to Galton.

Who has fed into the report?

The report has come from the Commission of Inquiry on the History of Eugenics at UCL, which was established in October 2018 with a remit of looking into UCL’s historical role in eugenics, the current status of study and teaching of eugenics at UCL and the financial benefit to UCL from financial instruments linked to eugenics. Upon conducting the inquiry, the commission was asked to make recommendations on UCL’s current position on the study of eugenics and the naming of spaces and buildings after prominent eugenicists, and also included recommendations about UCL’s financial link to eugenics.

The commission was chaired by Iyiola Solanke, a Professor of Law at the University of Leeds, with around 20 other members from UCL, including within academic departments, the Students’ Union and professional services staff such as UCL Library and the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Team. The work conducted leading up to the report’s publication included town hall meetings, expert witnesses, archival research and empirical research, including focus groups and an online survey.

What does the report recommend?

Recommendations within the report fall under these broad areas:

  • Teaching of the history of eugenics: including recommendations of how the history of eugenics can be better understood at UCL by staff and students, a diversification of different staff and student communities at all levels, and an effort by UCL to embed the teaching of Britain and Empire in UK schools.
  • Dissemination of eugenics: including UCL issuing an apology and acknowledgement of their complicity in eugenics and the re-naming of spaces and buildings which bear the name of eugenicists.
  • Study of the history of eugenics: including recommendations on the recruitment and retainment of BAME and disabled staff, introduction of scholarships, decolonising the curricula and auditing the accessibility of teaching, estates and pastoral support building on the Disabled Students’ Network report.

What does the report not consider?

The report’s main focus and scope was Galton, and so by its own acknowledgement did not look in depth at “the role of those working at UCL who were arguably more deeply involved with the teaching, research and dissemination of eugenics, such as Karl Pearson and others following him”. The relationship between eugenics and genetics was also not strongly considered, although both this relationship and Pearson and his predecessors are referred to within the report’s timeline.

It is also worth noting that this inquiry was not mandated to investigate the ‘London Conference on Intelligence’ which had been ‘secretly’ organised at UCL four times since 2015 and according to the report was “designed to discuss research linking human intelligence and race”. The discovery of this event on campus, convened by an honorary lecturer, provides the impetus for much of the current focus on UCL’s complicated history with eugenics.

The commission was unable to reach a full consensus on the final report and recommendations, so some of the recommendations some members made were published separately and not included as part of the main report. These alternative recommendations include making a “long-term commitment to provide a safe and constructive environment in which further study and reflection about eugenics can be undertaken”, the creation of department action plans to reflect on their participation in the history and impact of eugenics, specific communication around the reasons for renaming elements of the UCL estate and a re-purposing of funds linked to Galton’s benefaction.

Read the report here