Review of UCL Eugenics Inquiry: Failure on London Conference on Intelligence (LCI)

Students protest at University College London (UCL) during scandal over London Conference on Intelligence (LCI) January 2018

The chair’s report from the Investigation into the History of Eugenics at UCL is published today. It did not investigate the London Conference on Intelligence (LCI).

That’s odd. I thought that Inquiry was created to get answers about the LCI and to investigate if there was a larger body of activity, or supporting mindset, at the university to support it. Does UCL harbour a network of racist scientists and conspiracy theorists, or was the management’s claim about an “isolated case” justified?

Seems we are no closer to an answer.  I’m left frustrated. What do we have to do to get this out in the open? Why did the Eugenics Inquiry fail to do its job?

LCI: Backstory at UCL

Outrage was widespread when news broke in January 2018 in The London Student that UCL premises were used for the “London Conference on Intelligence” (LCI). These appeared to be an annual alt-right meeting for racists to develop pseudo-science about racial hierarchy, selective sterilization, and the like. Nasty stuff. Some said these meetings were “invitation only”; others called them “secret”.

When news broke, UCL executives seemed genuinely shocked. They promised full and speedy investigation. Then, all went quiet. Over two years later, no report about the LCI has been made public.

Creating an Inquiry

In November 2018, UCL announced a wide-ranging inquiry into its historical participation in eugenics, tying reaction to the LCI scandal to other protests about racist Victorian academics and how they were commemorated on the estate. The “Investigation into the History of Eugenics at UCL” (locally called the “Eugenics Inquiry” and sometimes grandly, “Commission of Inquiry”) was tasked with finding out what on Earth has been going on around the university in this topic, who currently is teaching eugenics, and offer some suggestions for sorting things out. The direction of travel seemed clear: eugenics is nonsense, find where we need to get rid of it. Queue enormous cheering from students and staff. This seemed well on its was to reversing the nonsense.

Passing the buck on the LCI

The final report of the Eugenics Inquiry, delayed from July 2019, is published today. It passes the buck on investigating the LCI.

“The Inquiry was not mandated to investigate this Conference.” (footnote 9)

That’s convenient.

Lack of investigation hasn’t stopped this Inquiry from bashing the LCI in its final report, or from using it to hold the university emotional hostage for bigger budgets and more power to the report’s authors. “It is mentioned solely to provide context,” the report claims. I don’t buy that.

UCL expected Eugenics Inquiry to investigate the LCI

I’ve been trying to get UCL to release whatever report it might have on investigating the LCI. And I’ve been trying to get the Eugenics Inquiry to investigate it, too. I sat on the Inquiry and repeatedly tried to get it on our agenda. Hitting a brick wall multiple times really hurts.

(Addendum 28 February 2020: UCL today released the report of its investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence following intervention from the Provost. It’s a start. Still, an investigation has been needed to understand the context and to answer larger questions.)

In September 2019, I submitted a freedom of information request for the original investigation’s report. After fobbing off, the university told me in January 2020 they couldn’t release the report they had because they were expecting the Eugenics Inquiry to ask for it. Their releasing it to me at that point, UCL said, could interfere with the Inquiry’s work.

I took this response to the Inquiry’s committee. I was told investigating LCI wasn’t in the Inquiry’s terms of reference. It seems pretty clear to me the Inquiry was instructed to investigate the relationship between eugenics and racism today at the university. That’s the LCI. The LCI scandal pretty much was an earthquake at the university, and some of the people who met that scandal head-on (FWIW I think they did a fabulous job under the most difficult circumstances) sat on the Eugenics Inquiry, too. Seems a dream team for an investigation.

What’s going on?

Is this a mere difference of opinion about who’s doing what? (I don’t think so.) Is it an intentional shell game designed to hide something? (I don’t think so.) Is it that people have moved on, and mine is just an interest in old news? (I don’t think so.) 

I suspect it’s in some people’s interest not be open about an investigation. I very much do not think that includes UCL’s executive. To me, they seem as outraged as everyone else, and, frankly, they strike me as quite pissed off something like this was going on. They strongly reject those ideas and the underlying mindset. UCL executives have put behind the Eugenics Inquiry a great deal of support: money, people, and keys to open doors. Executive direction seems clear to me: my bet is they wanted the Inquiry…you know…to inquire.

Perhaps we worried LCI would distract from other things we wanted to achieve with this moment of influence. That sounds plausible to me. LCI functions in the report as a hammer and it would be a hammer whether or not we knew more.

Solve this problem

UCL could do right by releasing the report of their original investigation as promised in January 2018. (Addendum 28 February 2020: done)

They could also build trust by describing what they’ve done to show lessons have been learned. (Addendum 28 February 2020: Provost’s View is good. I support him on this.) I happen to know some good things have been done. Other things, I hear, are underway, and we must wait for news of their completion. Waiting is OK, provided it’s not forever. (For example, if releasing a report might risk prejudicing a legal process, I can wait. I would rather see justice done well than undermine it.)

As a direction of travel, the university should be maximally open, then be ready to receive new advice, and then build on the momentum. It’s well past time to do this over the LCI.

The boring detail: roadmap since discovery

Here’s a timeline of activity related to the discussion above. It gives more detail to support the above argument.

January 2018: After press reports the previous week and a substantial protest by staff and student groups, on 15 January 2018, UCL announces:

“Following the controversy over the London Conference on Intelligence, UCL has set up an inquiry team led by the head of UCL’s Division of Psychology & Language Sciences with three other senior academics. They will investigate the Conferences, the way in which they ostensibly breached external booking procedures and the circumstances in which the organiser was awarded an honorary senior lectureship. The inquiry is already underway and the panel aims to complete its investigations as soon as possible.” (source)

November 2018: The Eugenics Inquiry begins. Among the terms of reference, item 2 focuses on current activities, implying the LCI will be a focus.

“2. To examine the current status of the teaching and study of eugenics at UCL” (TOR)

When I signed on as a member of the committee, I was under the impression the “current status” referred to the LCI. This was because I knew of no other case at UCL where eugenics advocacy was occurring.

Further, item 4 reinforced that focus on the LCI:

“4. To provide a recommendation as to what UCL’s current position should be on the teaching, dissemination and study of eugenics and its inherent link to modern day racism” (TOR)

I took “modern day” to mean we were expected to investigate the link between the LCI events and the campus protests against them. I also took that to mean we were expected to investigate issues of othering, non-belonging, and marginalisation associated with working in UCL post-LCI. That was the language of the protests. Seemed obvious to me.

More circumstantial evidence added when I look up who else was appointed to the committee. Some had direct experience working with staff and students affected by the LCI scandal. One has professional grounding in the unit where the LCI work took place.

December 2018-forward: During Inquiry meetings and surrounding informal chatter, we speak frequently about the LCI. I’d call this “commentary and reaction,” not investigation. No one seems to be seeking new facts.

January 2019: I searched for a published report. None to find. I made several information queries to communications teams to learn if a report was publicly available now or in the near future. I received no reply.

January 2019-summer 2019: the Inquiry focus shifts to other things. I feel the meetings are bogged down in the wrong business, and I say so. LCI is not formally discussed in this period. The chair gives no plan to investigate. I’m repeatedly scratching the note “where is LCI?” in my papers, and asking informally why we are not discussing it. I receive no answer. I note there are people on the committee with close working knowledge of events around LCI, but nothing is discussed in the meetings. I hit a brick wall, and we keep talking about other things.

March 2019: First Town Meeting: LCI comes up as a subject repeatedly. The Provost is clear: he knew nothing about them beforehand. UCL senior management knew nothing about them. UCL did not and does not endorse those events. UCL has identified certain problems (e.g., room booking procedures and management of honorary research staff) and is implementing solutions. In a side bar conversation, the Provost repeats to me the same points, stressing he has no sympathy for LCI or the way those conferences operated. His condemnation strikes me as heartfelt and passionate. In the Inquiry’s post-event de-brief, I repeat: we have got to investigate the LCI.

July 2019: The Eugenics Inquiry commissions a survey of opinion among staff and students. In the preamble to section 1, respondents were told:

“In December 2018, the Office of UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur appointed the Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL. There were various reasons for this, not only the decolonising agenda within and beyond UCL but also the discovery that within UCL campus, an honorary lecturer had been hosting conferences on eugenics and intelligence for at least three years, unbeknownst to most staff and students. The aim of the Commission is to make recommendations on how to address the present and future of the teaching and research of eugenics at UCL.”

LCI is demonstrably on our mind. We offer conclusions (claiming these were “unbeknownst”) but we have yet to collect evidence. We’ve received no documents related to the conferences, the work, the speakers, or the institution’s engagement. My view now is that the Inquiry has come to a set of conclusions without an investigation. We seem to have decided what happened. We seem to have decided we’re not interested in finding out who approved this, who was involved, how interlaced it was with other work in the division or university. It seems to me we’ve accepted a “isolated worker” narrative.

September 2019: LCI comes up again in informal discussion around the committee. I finally conclude this approach isn’t working to get it onto the official agenda. I submit a Freedom of Information request asking for the results of the internal investigation, begun in January 2018. I ask:

“What are the results of Inquiry into London Conference on Intelligence, launched January 2018? I would like to see records of the proceedings of this Inquiry team and their reporting. I also would like to see records of decision making at the level of UCL’s senior management team about action in response to the results of this inquiry.”

October 2019: Taking one more shot at it, I formally propose LCI for discussion at the 01 November 2019 meeting of the Eugenics Inquiry. I submit a briefing paper. However, LCI was not put on the agenda. LCI was not discussed. I was criticised for not participating enough.



October 2020: Second Town Hall. I did not attend. I have seen no record of the event.

January 2020: After an excessive delay, and after two requests for internal review (which never reported back to me, if they happened), I receive a reply from UCL to my September 2019 FOI request. It is declined. I am told “the information requested is exempt from disclosure”. The cited reason is the report I sought was likely to be used by the Eugenics Inquiry.

“A copy of the report into the London Conference on Intelligence (the information which is the subject of this FOI) is likely to be provided to the Inquiry, in order to assist them to carry out their role.”

“As the report which is the subject of the request is likely to be provided to the Inquiry, in order to fulfil the purpose of the review, it is crucial that UCL is entirely open with and accessible to the Inquiry and any relevant documents are disclosed to the panel first in order to allow them to complete their work. The inquiry will be setting out their views comprehensively and critically on the issue of eugenics in a report later this year, which is in the public interest and will be made publicly available by UCL.”

This is perfectly acceptable and legal, though it’s frustrating. The error here is the assumption something was going to happen (the Inquiry was going to ask), and that thing didn’t happen (We didn’t ask.). Interesting. Who made that connection, and who told the FOI person to communicate that to me? (FWIW I think that was an honestly made decision, and I’ve no criticisms of the FOI office. However, as a result, nothing has come out.) Still, someone in the institution besides me believed the Eugenics Inquiry should be investigating the LCI.

January 2020: I raise the matter of the LCI, and this FOI reply, at the next meeting of the Eugenics Inquiry, which is an away day to discuss the text of the final report. I note UCL’s expectation in this reply that the Eugenics Inquiry would investigate.

I am tempted to break Chatham House rules at this point. But I promised to respect them, and I will stick to that promise. I will only say I was told the Eugenics Inquiry would not be investigating the LCI and that the investigatory work of the Inquiry was now complete.

February 2020: The chair’s report of the Eugenics Inquiry is produced. It includes multiple references to the LCI. All references condemn it as an instance of scientific racism that adds to a climate of othering and hostility for BAME staff and students. It’s cited as a motivation for launching the Eugenics Inquiry. It’s treated as outrageous and a scandal. (FWIW, I entirely agree.) However, the chair’s report contributes no new evidence about the LCI. Later drafts of the report add a defensive note claiming the LCI was not in the Inquiry’s purview. A secondary explanation from the Inquiry is that it lacked time or resources to investigate the LCI. 

I don’t buy these reasons. One of my main criticisms of the Eugenics Inquiry is poor project management. Too much talk. Not enough work. We did not do our job when it comes to the LCI. At the very, very least we should have requested the university’s report of their investigation, and we should have interrogated that report in conversation with those on the Inquiry who knew the matter well. Then, we might have set a subgroup to set this moment in a wider frame. Not doing anything, I feel, has let the community down. For not doing more, I apologise. For not getting the answers, I will only say, watch this space.

29 February 2020: Two developments yesterday on UCL and the LCI investigation.

  1. UCL published its report from the investigation launched in January 2018. This came after specific intervention from the Provost, who wanted to cut through the muddle and be transparent. The report is heavily redacted. But we have something to work with.
  2. At the Town Hall meeting last night, the chair of the Eugenics Inquiry, Professor Iyiola Solanke, said she, and she alone, made the decision to avoid investigating the LCI within the Inquiry. She offered no further explanation. This helps identify who stopped further inquiry. It fails as an explanation for there simply is no explanation. It feels like an intentional willingness not to address the matter but to use rumour and speculation about the event as though those things were true. This is very poor practice, indeed. For me, having been on the committee and having made repeated attempts to get this on the agenda, it’s yet another example of being silenced and marginalised within a committee that was diverted for other purposes.

What is UCL going to do now about its understanding of the LCI?