Review of UCL Eugenics Inquiry: Reasons to Reject Recommendations From Chair

Majority of members on UCL's Eugenics Inquiry Withdraw Support for Chair's Report

The Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL presented the chair’s individual views as a report  to UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur in February 2020. He received that report, but he also received the alternative MORE group recommendations, which were supported by a majority of members (signed by 10 of 16 members) on the committee.

The MORE group recommendations offer a “least common denominator” approach to committee reporting. After agreement for the chair’s proposals collapsed, the MORE group worked to rescue consensus and common ground. By removing many of the items supported by only a few individuals, and after removing the most partisan of individual proposals inserted against objections, the MORE recommendations obtained a democratic mandate. The chair’s report does not have the backing of a majority on the committee. It is misleading to describe it as a document submitted “on behalf of” a committee that did not support it. Each member of the MORE group had other recommendations they hoped to add too, but we lacked time and opportunity to build consensus so these were not included in the MORE recommendations.

Many reports about the Inquiry describe the two sets of recommendations as similar. This is wrong. Yes, they propose some things in common. Especially, on issues of renaming and support for students and researchers.

However, it’s my view the chair’s report includes a whole series of individual opinions about what UCL should do that are inadvisable. Some are unworkable, such as the creation of a supervening Misconduct Committee somehow related to this Inquiry.  Others show unwelcome favouritism (such as those that exclude UCL Library Services or promote single units arbitrarily) or reach far beyond the terms of reference for the committee (such as engaging pipeline issues). Other proposals simply recommend things I don’t think the university should take seriously, such as recommending UCL develop national teaching programmes on Britain and Empire for UK schools. The Inquiry never investigated this. The subject is well developed elsewhere. The cost is not considered. The expertise for such an evaluation did not sit in the committee. This is someone’s pet project, and it’s been snuck into the report in the hopes no one would notice.

In contrast, the MORE recommendations have been commended by senior managers at UCL for being focused and for being framed in ways that make implementation straightforward should they choose to do so. 

Because the chair’s report lacks a democratic mandate, where it differs from the MORE recommendations it should be considered simply the view of the report’s author and not proposed “on behalf of” the committee.

This post presents my own analysis of various proposed recommendations in the chair’s report. I’ve written elsewhere on why I think the report itself is poor and why I did not sign it. I am not a spokesperson for the MORE group. I write here as an individual. Please do not assume my views are those of others in the MORE group unless they confirm.

Analysis of recommendations in chair’s report

Recommendations within the chair’s report are presented in different sections and numbering restarts in every section. For clarity, numbers here are given as [page number: recommendation number]. The quotes come directly from the chair’s report.

[5:1a] and [32-5] An all-Faculty Working Group comprising staff and students to be created to design ways to ensure that all UCL graduates know and understand the history of eugenics at UCL. Heads of Department are to determine whether this will be a compulsory module for all 1st years. The Working Group is to include experts from all disciplines including archives and curation so as to encourage engagement in a variety of forms including visual (exhibitions), oral (performance) and written (poetry, articles). There should be permanent outreach of some kind.

This is poorly formulated: HoDs do not determine whether a module will be compulsory or otherwise. This is decided by a process defined by UCL Academic Manual chapter 7.

The Inquiry failed to investigate the range of teaching and study within UCL, so it has no basis to conclude this is needed. This could be largely redundant, undermine existing  activities, or bog down innovation with an additional layer of management.

A working group including “all disciplines including archives and curation” will be impractically large (UCL hosts over 100 departments) and unwieldy. The Inquiry did not discuss optimal solutions to engage teaching and learning, so this approach is not a consensus view.

As a principle, I do not endorse centrally mandated curriculum. Central mandates should identify objectives and leave to academic units the decisions as to how best to develop in their local context. That type of mandate can be implemented easily within existing quality monitoring systems, without inventing something new.

 [5:1b] and [31: 3] A UCL-education to include engagement with the critical histories of disciplines. UCL graduates are to be ‘global citizens’ engaged with the real world and familiar with the implications of scientific theories and practices on the real world, rather than as abstractions from society.

UCL does not have compulsory requirements for all degrees, so there is no policy in which to place this proposed addition to an imagined “UCL education”. The “global citizen” element of this recommendation already is embedded in UCL teaching and learning frameworks. Nothing new here.

The Inquiry failed to investigate the range of teaching and study within UCL, so it has no  basis to conclude this is needed or isn’t already being delivered. It has been a source of considerable frustration to have a considerable amount of activity at UCL overlooked or ignored, and then be told there is a need for something that we know exists across wide sections of the university.

Undergraduate degrees in most disciplines are reviewed against existing benchmarks, such as QAA subject benchmark statements and disciplinary standards. These normally include reflective and critical elements. Those benchmarks are used as reference points in quality monitoring processes within the university. Hence, this recommendation is redundant against existing systems. The Inquiry might have obtained a fair estimation of need either by reviewing quality monitoring documentation or reviewing benchmark standards. Both sets of records are held centrally and easy to assemble.

The phrase “abstractions from society” is incoherent in this context.

[5:1d] and [32-7] UCL to undertake work to embed the teaching and learning of Britain and Empire in schools in the UK. This could be through paid posts in relevant UCL Centres such as the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation.

This recommendation appears out of thin air. The chair’s report provides no discussion of current states of curriculum in UK schools regarding empire. It identifies no problems that should be solved. It proceeds with an embarrassing lack of knowledge about what currently exists in school curriculum and how the process of curriculum development occurs in the UK.

The focus on “schools in the UK” is beyond the brief of the Inquiry.

The Inquiry lacks expertise in this area and failed to consult expertise, such as UCL’s Institute of Education, or any other body involved in developing school curriculum. 

The link between UCL, empire, and eugenics is not developed in the chair’s report, so a rationale is not provided. Eugenics was not discussed within the de-colonisation agenda as part of the Inquiry. This is work that might have been done, but it wasn’t.

The financial commitment to achieve this result on a national scale would be extraordinary.

The Remond Centre is a new, independent, research and teaching centre within UCL and should not be assigned institutional policy imperatives or encumbered by onerous duties without the very strong prior support of its staff. What appears to be patronage from one side can be a crushing encumbrance on the another. Moreover, focus on the Remond Centre alone leaves the impression of favouritism, and the report presents no explanation for why the Institute of Education – one of the UK’s leaders in UK education – was neither consulted nor referenced. As a rule of governance, UCL should respond to proposals from academic units, not impose duties upon them outside a fair bidding process.

 [5:2a] UCL to issue a meaningful and effective apology that acknowledge its complicity in eugenics and the harm and hurt caused by eugenics to people in BAME and targeted communities in the UK and elsewhere.

No community should receive special mention in this recommendation. All communities have equal relevance, and UCL should not be putting itself in the position of appearing to arbitrate magnitude of harm. For instance, UCL based eugenics advocacy was grounded primarily in anti-disability, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration of low income eastern and southern Europeans. It would be unjustified to especially highlight harm to specific groups in an apology.

The word “effective” is meaningless in this context. The chair’s report gives no context for this notion and no criteria to judge effectiveness.

[5:3a] UCL to devote resources to recruitment and retainment of BAME and disabled staff and decolonising the curricula in all departments, with an emphasis on classroom/ teaching & research settings.

I find it hard to understand the aim of this recommendation. It’s all over the place.

The Inquiry examined no evidence on recruitment and retention of staff, so it has no basis to make this recommendation from within the Inquiry itself. The Inquiry is at risk of being a vehicle for other agendas with recommendations like this. Whatever the merits of those other agendas, this diversion is poor practice.

Decolonization already has dedicated resources. The Inquiry did not assess the effectiveness or costs of those activities, so it has no basis for making a recommendation to expand in this area. We did assess what was happening, so we’ve no idea what’s missing or needed.

The meaning of “classroom/ teaching & research settings” is given no operational explanation in the report. The report sets out no objectives for work in either setting, nor does it offer examples for how implementation might proceed. This recommendation is underdeveloped.

[5:3b] UCL to conduct an audit of accessibility in relation to BAME and disability in teaching, Estates and pastoral support, building on the work of the Disabled Student Network Report.

Support for Students’ Union UCL Disabled Student Network Report is commendable. However, the recommendation here is not clear as to what it seeks in an “audit of accessibility in relation to…teaching, Estates…” and it provides no examples for what might be sought as remedy.

[5:3c] and [27: 7] UCL to convene a symposium on the Race and Disability Gap Index (similar to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index).

This Index is not discussed in the chair’s report and no context is given for why this Index merits special attention. This Index seems to be a conflation of several indexes offered to measure EDI disparities.

It’s not clear what such a symposium aims to achieve.

Convening symposia should be an academically driven activity. If an academic or academic programme wants to sponsor a symposium, they have amble routes for doing this and for seeking institutional support.

[27: 3] All Departments should devise action to determine how they will deal with this history of eugenics at UCL. For example, department webpages should include appropriate material on eugenics. Heads of Departments should be required to submit a clear plan of action to undertake this to the regular oversight mechanisms at UCL as well as the body established to oversee and monitor implementation of these recommendations.

The MORE group recommendation 3 takes a better approach within the institution and improves communication and accountability.

The chair’s recommendation proposes a “body established to oversee and monitor implementation of these recommendations”. This sets dangerous precedents towards (1) creating a thought police and (2) developing extramural governance. It should be rejected for both reasons. The chair’s report does not identify why eugenics should represent so clear and present a threat to free inquiry that regulatory oversight is required beyond what already exists. As a precedent, such a body could lead to the creation of similar bodies for other reasons, too, such as carbon use or excessive food miles or public health burdens. These will entangle the institution. The chair’s report should identity why existing mechanisms have failed or prove inadequate means for action before proposing additional layers of governance.

Any regulatory body must have transparent governance and mechanisms. The Inquiry did not discuss the creation of such a body or how it might fit within UCL’s already significant matrix of programme monitoring and review. There is a very significant danger here of creating extramural governance and the promotion of static ideologies.

[27: 4] UCL to determine a pro-active institutional way to foster research in this area at the level of doctoral and post-doctoral study, including in cross-Faculty work, and to find resources for this. This could be achieved through investment in additional staffing in the Sarah Parker Remond Centre.

Reference to Remond Centre risks favouritism by treating it as uniquely able to engage these issues. This has the appearance of special pleading within the institution, especially when proposals for action were not sought from across the institution and no special case was presented by (or in favour of) one unit over all others. Given the depth and breadth of expertise across all of UCL, what makes this one unit special, and what makes support for one unit alone the preferable model for action for UCL going forward? Other options were not considered by the committee.

[27: 5] In order to disrupt the ‘normativity’ promoted by eugenics, UCL to establish and invest in a ‘Pipeline to Promotion’ scheme to improve BAME and disabled representation in senior levels of academic staff and professional services. This scheme should begin with an announcement by the Provost of a) an immediate review into BAME staff retention and b) a review to identify BAME or disabled staff members who have been at same level for more than 5 years.

The Inquiry did not review data on pipeline issues, nor did it receive data from UCL units involved in developing pipeline strategies, such as Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charter Mark. This is overreach from the chair into other areas of UCL policy.

The chair’s report gives no evidence for a connection between “normativity” issues associated with eugenics and promotion issues for BAME and disabled staff in particular. If anything, the history of eugenics advocacy at UCL was a history of anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and exclusion of low-income people coming from southern and eastern European countries. Thus, the “normativity” to disrupt should fall upon other protected categories, if the logic of the chair’s report is accepted.

[31: 2f] Creation of an Independent UCL Misconduct Committee to a) oversee a review of current systems for anonymous reporting and mediation b) consider ways to strengthen initiatives such as “Full Stop” and “Report and Support” c) ensure students are enabled to deliver complaints safely; and d) develop a system whereby Heads of Department are made responsible for acting upon an accumulation of complaints.

This subject is outside the terms of reference for this Inquiry. Creation of an Independent UCL Misconduct Committee is undesirable as a matter of governance. The chair’s report presents no evidence of a need for such a committee, nor does it present evidence that current misconduct procedures are failing. There is a risk of petty despotism in this recommendation. A charitable reading of this recommendation is that it is nothing more than a reiteration of existing activities within the institution, such as the Full Stop Campaign.

What actions related to the history of eugenics at UCL is proposed to be a matter for misconduct review beyond the current mechanisms? This moves into highly sensitive areas, such as academic freedom of research and academic entrepreneurship. Certainly a case could be made that the types of eugenics research and advocacy undertaken at UCL constituted unethical and inappropriate research. (FWIW, I would argue this, but I think the case has weaknesses.) The chair’s report presents no example of such; neither does it argue a case based on a class of work undertaken at UCL. 

The oversight of such a committee is unexplained in the chair’s report.

[32-6] All Departments at UCL are to immediately consider how to incorporate critical diversity teaching on the history of eugenics into their curriculum – Heads of Departments are to set out a clear plan of action. The ‘AIG’ created to oversee these recommendations is to establish an online pool of such teaching material to support this.

This recommendation is ambiguous. What is “AIG” and what role is “oversight”.

The chair’s report does not specify what “critical diversity training on the history of eugenics” might be, either as examples or as case studies from elsewhere. The Inquiry failed to investigate teaching and study at UCL, so it has no basis for concluding there is a substantial need for such work.

This approach risks top-down imposition of curriculum, which as a rule should be avoided.

Who is going to fund and curate this digital resource? The bibliography presented in the Inquiry’s resources is weak and shows notable biases. How is UCL to audit this pool of resources to ensure it avoids the same.

[32-8] UCL to improve the ability for investigation of its institutional history through a) investment in enabling those from BAME, disabled and other groups targeted by eugenics to become experts in this area and b) investment in its archives and collections, library and museums.

MORE subgroup recommendation 17 provides better articulation of element (b) of this recommendation.

[32-9] The Committee on UCL Museums to be tasked with critically and creatively working with the collections related to eugenics at UCL, UoL and elsewhere to develop an exhibition in a publicly accessible space. To ensure both transparency and engagement, the Committee on Museums must include as decision-makers persons from BAME and disabled groups targeted by eugenics not just in UCL but also beyond it.

Committee on Museums is not a structure in UCL. The UCL Culture, Heritage and Museums Committee might be what is proposed here. That is not an exhibition-design committee. CHMC has been the focus of complaints about representation in the past, and it likely is not the best unit for this activity. CHMC has no authority over representation from University of London (e.g., Senate House Library) or elsewhere.

The chair’s report shows unjustified favouritism towards UCL Culture and against UCL Library Services and other professional services regarding the delivery of critical and creatively materials associated with UCL’s history of eugenics. UCL Library Services has demonstrated long-time engagement with the subject and has provided access and engagement without interruption; whereas, UCL Culture, who once had a substantial programme of critical heritage studies, has retracted into not very much on that front. Its digital resources lack substance and are not accessible.

This recommendation omits reference to UCL Records Office as a key stakeholder in this subject.

This recommendation fails to draw upon expertise across the UCL community, such as the excellent Centre for Critical Heritage Studies.

[34-2a] an expansion of opportunities at UCL for those targeted by Eugenics. This might include scholarships, Library Fellowships, lectureships or research programmes, employment of a full-time employee in the Students Union for disabled students, creation of accessible funds (for example hiring BSL interpreters at events) or funding for Student Liberation Officers, scholarships for BAME students, or PhDs in Race Studies;

The chair’s recommendation introduces an imbalance in favour of support for BAME students over others targets by eugenics research and advocacy at UCL.

The emphasis on “race studies” is not justified in the chair’s report, and indicates a particular favouritism towards certain subjects under the broad themes of “eugenics”. This creates unfairness for others targets by eugenics policies developed at UCL.

[34-2b] a commitment to contribute to the budget required to fund the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation for at least ten years. This would be a form of reparation through an acknowledgement of the extreme underfunding of research and work undertaken by one group of people disadvantaged by eugenics over generations.

This proposed recommendation was specifically rejected in committee discussions on the principle that (1) core funding for this particular centre had been ensured through a Provost initiative, and (2) the committee should not offer preferential support for one unit over all others at UCL so as to avoid the appearance of favouritism. The reinsertion of this recommendation represents an individual preference by the chair.

There is a concern over possible conflicts of interest. Some members of the committee were keen to ensure these recommendations avoided any appearance of conflict of interest, such as using the tool of this Inquiry’s recommendations to forward projects of individual interests and ambitions. Whilst some conflicts of interest were declared in committee deliberations, the Inquiry – as a matter of governance – was lax in encouraging members to follow UCL policy of declaring conflicts of interest in such deliberations.

There also was a developing view within the committee that the Inquiry had taken on a tone of penalty vs reward when considering re-allocation of funds: taking funds away from one unit as a penalty for past association with eugenics, regardless of past and present efforts of atonement, and awarding those funds to a favoured unit under the promise they will somehow offer academic counterweights and institutional absolution. The focus on penalty was to be avoided. The focus on restorative justice was to be preferred.

Three points. First, the rationale for this approach (penalise one unit and reward another) is not justified in this case, as the penalised department (Genetics, Evolution, and Environment) has a long history of restorative efforts related to eugenics and should have been allowed to make its case for why it should avoid penalty. Rebuttal is an element of natural justice, and this summary proposal denies that option to GEE. The harsh criticism in the chair’s individual views for GEE does not represent a collective decision. This is a misuse of position.

Second, GEE has been singled out for special sanctions. It is not uniquely associated with the history of eugenics at UCL, and some departments at UCL have been let off the hook. The chair’s report makes no argument for why this unit merits special penalty over all others, and it is especially worrying that GEE seems to be bullied while other departments are passed over. For instance, education and medicine at UCL have significant connections to eugenics programmes, but this was ignored in the Inquiry.

Third, the Remond Centre has been singled out for special reward. The chair’s report makes no argument for why this unit merits special reward when many departments at UCL are well positioned to further develop counterweighting activities.

[38-1] UCL to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into all names used within the UCL estate and declare its intention to adopt an ethical system that emphasises inclusivity in future naming. UCL should consider whether all the names of its buildings and spaces are consistent with its values and mission as well as appropriate for the 21st century.

This repeats MORE recommendation 9.