UCL launches in­quiry into his­tor­i­cal links with eu­gen­ics

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science - Anna Faza­ck­er­ley

Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don has launched an in­quiry into its his­tor­i­cal links with eu­gen­ics, fol­low­ing pres­sure from stu­dents and staff.

It emerged in Jan­uary that con­fer­ences on eu­gen­ics and in­tel­li­gence had been run se­cretly 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 has pre­vi­ously ad­vo­cated child rape.

Toby Young, the head of the gov­ern­ment-backed New Schools Net­work, stepped down as di­rec­tor of the new Of­fice for Stu­dents shortly af­ter it was re­vealed that he had at­tended the last of these con­fer­ences in May 2017.

The univer­sity, which was un­aware of the ex­is­tence of these meet­ings, has now sev­ered all links with Thomp­son, as well as tight­en­ing up its room-book­ing sys­tems.

Thomp­son de­clined to com­ment this week, but wrote in a re­cent blog that he had been forced to keep the UCL meet­ings se­cret be­cause speak­ers were wor­ried that dis­cus­sions about “group dif­fer­ences” could face “hos­tile in­ter­rup­tions and dam­age their ca­reers”. He also ar­gued that “sci­en­tific truths” about racial dif­fer­ence could not be deemed racist.

But UCL’s links with eu­gen­ics started long be­fore these con­fer­ences. Sir Fran­cis Gal­ton, the Vic­to­rian sci­en­tist who is known as the fa­ther of eu­gen­ics, left his per­sonal col­lec­tion and archive to the univer­sity, as well as an en­dow­ment that funded the coun­try’s first pro­fes­so­rial chair of eu­gen­ics.

The new in­quiry will ques­tion whether build­ings should still be named af­ter Gal­ton and other lead­ing eu­geni­cists.

UCL’s stu­dents’ union wants Gal­ton’s name stripped from a lec­ture the­atre and a lab­o­ra­tory. It is cam­paign­ing for all of the univer­sity’s teach­ing ma­te­ri­als to be “de­colonised”.

Mah­mud Rah­man, the union’s democ­racy, op­er­a­tions and com­mu­nity of­fi­cer, wel­comed the in­quiry and said: “UCL’s his­tory in re­la­tion to eu­gen­ics is deeply trou­bling for us and our mem­bers.”

UCL’s pres­i­dent, Prof Michael Arthur, said the univer­sity had de­cided to ex­am­ine its his­tor­i­cal links to eu­gen­ics be­cause the is­sue “causes con­sid­er­able con­cern among many mem­bers of our com­mu­nity”.

He added: “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.”

But aca­demics out­side UCL stressed that the in­quiry must not be used as a stick­ing plas­ter to avoid ad­dress­ing big­ger is­sues about racial equal­ity on cam­pus.

Kal­want Bhopal, pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial jus­tice at Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity, said: “I think it’s hugely im­por­tant for uni­ver­si­ties to ac­knowl­edge their past ac­tions, but it must lead to some real change, rather than sim­ply be­ing rhetoric.”

Pratik Chakrabarti, pro­fes­sor of the his­tory of science, tech­nol­ogy and medicine at Manch­ester Univer­sity, said: “I feel just hav­ing a go at Gal­ton or the eu­genic past of UCL is not ter­ri­bly ef­fec­tive, un­less we link these ques­tions to what is hap­pen­ing with the great class and race di­vide in our so­ci­ety.”

Mean­while, some sci­en­tists are hor­ri­fied that Gal­ton, whose other con­tri­bu­tions to science in­cluded cre­at­ing psy­cho­me­t­ric test­ing and the sta­tis­ti­cal con­cept of cor­re­la­tion, might be erased from UCL.

Niall McCrae, a se­nior lec­turer in men­tal health nurs­ing at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, said: “Gal­ton was one of the great­est Bri­tish sci­en­tists of all time, who put psy­chol­ogy on a proper sci­en­tific foot­ing. You’ve got to un­der­stand the fig­ure in the con­text of the time in which he was work­ing. To link him with the Nazis is an hor­rific sen­ti­men­tal­ist slur.”

He added: “Nowa­days in uni­ver­si­ties there is a cul­ture of com­pletely over­turn­ing peo­ple who were once cel­e­brated.”

Iyi­ola Solanke, pro­fes­sor of EU law and so­cial jus­tice at Leeds Univer­sity, will lead the in­quiry. It will re­port next sum­mer.

Pho­to­graph: Mar­tin God­win for the Guardian

The in­quiry will ques­tion whether UCL build­ings should still be named af­ter lead­ing eu­geni­cists.

Prof Michael Arthur, pres­i­dent of UCL: ‘We both hear and recog­nise the sen­si­tiv­i­ties around eu­gen­ics.’

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