Review of UCL Eugenics Inquiry: Failure on Teaching and Study

UCL's Eugenics Inquiry failed to seriously investigate teaching and learning

The Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL was expected to report on how we teach and study eugenics in the university. This instruction about teaching was included in our Terms of Reference:

“To examine the current status of the teaching and study of eugenics at UCL” (Terms of Reference, 2018)

We didn’t do the job.

The Inquiry collected a tiny amount of anecdotal information. This was dropped in late in the day while rushing to complete the chair’s report. We did not discuss or reflect upon these examples. We didn’t even decide it they were, in fact, good examples. We learned very little in this process, and we don’t have any grounds for recommending some teaching over any others. We don’t have any grounds for criticising other teachings, either. Facing up to the history of eugenics teaching at UCL is a job undone by the chair’s report. 

Analysis of conclusions about teaching and study

What the chair’s report delivers is disappointing. As an investigation, the Inquiry had no method for systematic data collection. It did not ask academic units to speak for themselves. It did not report on information gathered from module databases (UCL uses Portico) or virtual learning environments (UCL uses Moodle and Extend). It did not report on dissertations freely available, to understand the range of graduate work (UCL uses Discovery). It did not ask students for their knowledge of teaching programmes. It did not consult student organizations to learn if they engaged eugenics in their activities. It did not report on any review of student systems for commenting upon modules (some units encourage students to collect reviews).

Lectures and modules sign-posted as being about “eugenics” are far from the only place to find teaching about eugenics. The Inquiry discussed no methodologies for locating subtle teaching about eugenics in areas such as education, medicine and dentistry, student support services, anthropology, public health, architecture, or engineering. Historians have studied teaching about eugenics in domains such as these, and we needed to benefit from that experience. Neither did we identify what heuristics we might use for classifying activity as “promotion of eugenics” or “promoting critical and reflective learning about eugenics”.

Two examples show why these shortcomings are important. UCL offers several opportunities to study prenatal genetics, diagnosis, and counselling. These are hot spots for eugenic concerns, especially in areas of protected characteristics defined as disabilities. Those teaching programmes are mature, reflective, and professional. They also are units teaching students in complex practical settings in which decisions on pregnancy termination are a reality. My own expectation is that we’d find sensitive and careful teaching – the kind you’d want to hold up as best practice for others. Did we collect information from these units? No.

Another example relates to data science. UCL has rapidly expanding programmes for teaching and study in this area. Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher were two eugenicists at UCL. They also were statisticians whose claims to being scientific and rigorous relied heavily upon their use of large data sets. Many other eugenicists made arguments based only on their analysis of birth, marriage, and death statistics. At UCL, demography and eugenics were intertwined. Data science is a predictable potential hotspot both for eugenics advocacy and for related concerns. We should have investigated, for example, ethics surrounding predictive algorithms. Did we investigate? No.

Not all “study” involves formal learning in classrooms. With this acknowledged in the instruction (i.e., it’s packed into the word “study”), the Inquiry still did not seek information from units across the university, such as our libraries, our museums and collections, our widening participation teams, our communications teams, our ethics training, our CPD, our life-long-learning, or our teacher development programmes. It did not report on how eugenics was engaged in UCL public events, such as in our Lunch Hour Lecture series, or our involvement in festivals, such as the Bloomsbury Festival and those occurring around UCLEast, such as the Festival of Culture. It did not investigate student-organised groups and activities. It did not investigate activities surrounding the university with our sister organisation and affiliates.

This failure to ask means the Inquiry gave no part of the institution an opportunity to demonstrate strength, such as where it rejected eugenics and demonstrated why is was nonsense. Or, more importantly, where it teaches students to be alert to eugenic biases built into systems like counselling, assessment, and forecasting. There was little opportunity for members of the UCL community to stand up as participants in critique, analysis, and reflection. We have let down the UCL community, as it appears we didn’t bother even with the easy work of simply asking.

Given heavy emphasis at UCL on curriculum change towards de-centring, diversifying, and de-colonizing, I’d expect to find many examples of new or longstanding critical engagement about eugenics. I’d also expect to find many examples of colleagues pointing to related subjects that make use of the same reflective spirits. This self-admission would be easy to gather. All units with teaching programmes submit annual reports describing how they meet institutional imperatives, such as de-centring and liberating. There would be a good place to start any search for this type of practice, as well as for noticing who’s keeping suspiciously quiet. All that data flows to a single office at UCL. Did we ask to review it? No.

Unreliable methods to survey teaching

From my vantage point within the committee, the data collection strategy involved (1) asking those around the table to contribute what they knew, (2) receiving several student reports about comments in lectures they deemed discriminatory (fwiw they seemed discriminatory to me, too), and (3) receiving information from witness testimony.

This was weak, blunt, easy methodology. I said so in the committee. I got labelled a trouble-maker.

Further, I’m not clear whether much of the data collected was put to use. Reading the testimonies, for example, I developed the impression those in the Department of Genetics, Environment, and Evolution sought to communicate an impression of their unit as solidly engaged in critical and reflective teaching about eugenics. That’s consistent with their research and publications, and it’s consistent with what I myself know from many years working with students who’ve taken modules in that department. The Inquiry report seems to take the opposite view about that department’s teaching. On what evidence, I do not know. The report is not transparent.

I’m most surprised we did not obtain written evidence on specific possible hotspots. First, what teaching and study about eugenics takes place in Department of Statistical Sciences? The department was represented on the committee, and some reflective teaching was described. IMHO based on what I anecdotally know, I sense there is good practice underway in that department and a large culture change in the past decade. However, we did not collect formal evidence on this historical hotspot.

Second, what takes place in the UCL’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences? This is the unit associated with the London Conferences on Intelligence (LCI). To my mind, this is the first place we should have examined the teaching environment to test the “isolated case” claim asserted by the institution. The division was represented on the committee. Nothing was submitted as evidence. To my knowledge, nothing was requested.

The chair’s report does not cite the evidence I submitted about teaching and study in my department, either. That could simply be sampling in a crowded field – a summary can’t include everything – but I’m proud of the work my department does in critical and reflective thinking about science. As experts in the field, I feel we were passed over and not given a chance to make our case. We never discussed that submission in the committee, and it seems there’s a lot of room in the chair’s report for topics of interest to the author. On one hand, this is an individual complaint. It’s also indicative of the chair’s report’s seeming indifference to interdisciplinary programmes across the university in which critical and reflective skills are embedding into the very fabric of the degree. Examples are Human Sciences BSc, Natural Sciences BScBASc programme, and our degrees in STS. UCL Medical School has had similar elements for many years. UCL Engineering reorganised their programmes over the past decade towards these ends, too. These are widely recognised for breaking new ground. The Bartlett School of Architecture also delivers excellent reflective and critical programmes.

When I read the chair’s report, I hear a chorus so very common from academics on heroic missions: “nobody does it well, a few are ok, but we need a lot of money and people added so we can get it right and do it the way we want.” I don’t think this formulation is justified in this case. It might be. If it is, the author of this report is to need much better sampling of the population before I’m convinced. As it is, I simply do not recognise the UCL that is being portrayed here. We are far, far, far better.

What was my role in this failure?

One of my recurrent criticisms of committee operations in the Eugenics Inquiry has been poor project management. Collecting information about current teaching and study should have been tasked to a subgroup of the committee, and they should have been set to work early in the process.

I sat on the Inquiry committee, and I repeatedly complained we were not working on this instruction in any sensible fashion. I came to believe I was fighting against a managerial view that believed it had its conclusions already and no new data was required.

To show what I thought was appropriate from a department, I submitted a memo describing the teaching undertaken in my own unit. To compile this, I simply asked my colleagues if they had anything to contribute to the list. Total effort was about 5 minutes for each person and 20 minutes for me. The result shows (1) there’s a lot, (2) some information is obvious (an external search would find it) and some is subtle, and (3) people engage “eugenics” with quite different emphases. I don’t think this list is comprehensive for my department, but it’s a good first order approximation.

The chair’s report is highly critical of teaching about eugenics in some academic units and calls for other units to intervene. I don’t know the evidence base for this, but it was not collected by the Inquiry. Those criticisms seem to me a bit of a mangle, creating quite poorly expressed conceptions as to what those subjects entail. Do we know what we’re talking about?

Overall

The chair’s report on teaching and study about eugenics at UCL is a poor job and offers advice based on limited, anecdotal evidence. I don’t recognise the UCL that is portrayed in this report. It appears to me the narrative about teaching in this report offers up simply a useful fiction, created to justify a conclusion seemingly decided upon long before the work began.

The core problem with the information presented is poor methodology. A few people contributed a few pieces of information, and these anecdotes fail to give much insight into the institution as a whole. Don’t let the Inquiry off the hook with names for a few modules and claims not to have had time to create a comprehensive survey. The instruction was to do it. Why didn’t this happen?

Truth be told, I don’t know what teaching and study occurs around UCL beyond my limited network. I do not claim everything is wonderful. I do not claim there are no points for criticism. We haven’t done the work. We can’t conclude, as the report does and as I very much hope is true, “Eugenics per se is not taught anywhere at UCL today.” I suspect that had we done the work, we would have found a commendable breadth and depth of engagement around subjects linked to eugenics. I suspect we also would have found some areas of concern, and we would have found some areas of denial-of-relevance. However, failing to ask, and still drawing conclusions, simply is poor practice. It effectively silences people who are trying hard to challenge eugenics and its underlying racist and supremacist thinking. This is precisely the kind of stigmatisation we are trying so hard to stop. The Inquiry has failed the UCL community because we were instructed to give answers, not excuses.

I support the MORE subgroup’s recommendations to help UCL face up to its history of eugenics. They supports open-ended and wide-ranging research into teaching and study. They support reflective, considered reviews, no pick-and-mix. This is the path for real investigation.

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