Review of UCL Eugenics Inquiry: Why I Didn’t Sign that Eugenics Report

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

I served on UCL’s Inquiry into the History of Eugenics. I withdrew my support for the chair’s report, which is published today. Together with nine other colleagues also serving on this committee, I and they created a set of recommendations (also here) arising from our work that we have presented to UCL’s President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur. This is the MORE subgroup of this Inquiry, and we constitute 10/16ths of the committee. Please don’t call the MORE Report a “minority” piece. Please don’t call the chair’s “report” a majority report, either. It was presented to the Inquiry panel as a “draft”, and approval was not put to a vote. It’s the chair’s report.

In this post, I’ll describe my reasons for declining to sign the chair’s report. Two caveats: (1) I write for myself, not others, (2) references to the chair’s report refer to the last draft circulated to the committee on 17 February 2020. Distribution of later versions ceased to the committee. No explanation. I don’t know what’s been changed between then and publication date on 28 February 2020.

Why did I withdraw my name from the chair’s report?

First, I felt we were only on one track. My largest problems with the chair’s report from the Eugenics Inquiry stem from the fact it seemed to me to be focusing only on one issue in eugenics, one affected community, and one set of problems. That’s one-track. At the same time, this struck me as leaving undone a lot of core business of our instruction. We didn’t seem to be rising above the desired to “refute” or “expose” eugenics to understand what happened, why, and what we could learn about it.

This is not a situation of “either/or”. We need both the work of the Eugenics Inquiry and the other agendas forwarded in the chair’s report. More; not less. But keeping to one track, I thought, was a poor strategy. It took away something important, and it wasn’t fair to single track, either – too tied up with eugenics to develop the argument it should have been making. Surely, we can do better than this. Two investigations? I’d be happy with that.

On the side of the eugenics investigation, the very strong emphasis on race (as it’s understood in today’s OfS language of ethnicity) leaves a lot out. At UCL, most eugenics research and advocacy targeted low-income European migrants into England, defended antisemitism and nativism, and worked against people with disabilities of all kinds. Karl Pearson’s obsession with “national eugenics” was a good example. The chair’s report focuses almost exclusively on concerns today associated with BAME racism. Whilst that subject is acutely important for UCL, that’s not the focus of most eugenics as it was developed at UCL. This in no way let’s UCL off the hook. Facing up to UCL’s history of eugenics – and its history of racism and scientific racism – is fundamentally important. We do not have to use one subject to achieve our goals related to another.

It’s easy to think: this is a poor report because it doesn’t deliver a history of eugenics. Whatever your views on that, don’t let it cloud over the important things asserted in the chair’s report about the need for BAME inclusion in the university. Better inclusion with reduce the risk of eugenics nonsense developing like it did. The more homogenous the group, the more likely subtle assumptions and structural prejudice will creep in.

Second, I have objections about quality. I don’t like the style of historical analysis in this report. I’m a historian. To my eye, the historical material in those drafts uses two elementary devices for telling history: long lists of quotes and reliance on a timeline. This is no substitute for analysis.

I deeply feared this report would damage reputations, and I said so. This is especially true because the Inquiry collected a lot of excellent historical research and identified excellent published literature (such as Farrall’s work). This was barely tapped. I think the historical material chosen for the report shows the same persistent biases found in other of its institutional messages about eugenics (e.g., UCL’s bibliography.) For something so serious, we can’t play pick-and-mix or play favourites. We can’t blank respected and well-researched voices because they don’t agree with preconceptions. TBF, fresh voices and new perspectives must be equally welcomed, too, and some of these appear in UCL’s corporate material. 

Third, I have objections with substance. The chair’s report doesn’t help us understand better the history of eugenics at UCL. It has key facts wrong or muddled. It delivers a powerful takedown of one villain (Galton – yes, he was a nasty piece of work, but we knew this well before the Inquiry) but it treats him as a deity at UCL, which he certainly was not. It seems to make UCL responsible for all eugenics everywhere, and that simply is too much. It lets a load of people off the hook (e.g., Ronald Fisher and Mary Stopes – both nasty eugenicists), and it ignores critics of eugenics within UCL (e.g., Lionel Penrose and Egon Pearson) who were equally or more powerful. It avoids more complicated cases (e.g., JBS Haldane and Julia Bell). It shows little evidence of reviewing the research undertaken by eugenicists at UCL to learn what they actually did. The chair’s report paints an image of eugenics at UCL I simply do not recognise, an image of eugenics overall I do not recognise, and an image of responsibility that is too binary to be meaningful. By shining so bright a light on Galton, we let far too much activity hide in the dark.

Beyond people, the chair’s report also ignores managerial dimensions of the UCL story that I think are profoundly important for understanding how a eugenics research centre could be started at UCL. It is not just about money. Excessive deference to managers is one factor. Excessive amounts of discretionary money is another. Crafty people who know how to work the system is a third. Complacent, homogenous, and soft oversight is a fourth. Each of these topics has been in play at UCL in recent years. Executives have been sharply criticised for trying to bring some of these practices to a halt. I want UCL to learn from its history, not obscure it with easy punches against cardboard cutout Galton.

Finally, this report seems to me to obscure the fact this Inquiry failed to deliver much of what was asked. It’s easy to see through: check the terms of reference against the product. Overall, we showed poor project management skills and division of labour. We used an enormous amount of time on low-value tasks. Requests to focus on projects in our instructions were declined. To defend this, we’re told this Inquiry was only ever about racism at UCL today. That’s not what the terms of reference indicate; it’s simply what several people on the committee believed should be focus. I think we let UCL down.

For example: Where’s the survey of teaching and study at UCL? Where is the analysis of the community polling that was undertaken? Where is the investigation of the London Conference on Intelligence (LCI)?

Did we have enough time?

We had 15-16 people and 14 months, plus two paid postdoctoral researchers and informally support from three professional services units at UCL. We also had enormous good will to get things done within the institution and the power of the Provost’s Office to shake things loose. We failed to harness these in effective ways, and we’re now stuck with very little to show for the time spent.

Three people who should be highly commended for doing what was asked of them in this Inquiry are: the researchers hired for specific tasks (archives work and polling work) and the Inquiry administrator who tried to keep the wheels moving week-to-week. They delivered fantastically.

Is there anything worth keeping in the chair’s report?

Yes. There is gold in this report. I will draw everyone’s attention to the section “why UCL cares…” The material on stigmatization is a specialist subject for the chair. They were right to bring this into the Inquiry as a way to convey to those not feeling themselves targeted by eugenics why reference to it (and to race science, compulsory sterilisation, and racism generally) is so incendiary in today’s university. Strip away everything else, and this bit remains essential reading for UCL and worth deep reflection.

What about the recommendations?

Looking past the chair’s report, I did not sign up to the report’s recommendations largely over the issue of the single-track emphasis. It felt those recommendations failed to engage many groups of people who certainly were the target of eugenics research and advocacy as practised at UCL.

Instead of quitting the Inquiry, I worked with some colleagues to create the MORE recommendations. These are now endorsed by a subgroup of committee members who have been working this month to create a set of recommendations most of the committee could agree with. It’s not everything anyone of us wanted. But it’s a least common denominator.

The key question now is: will UCL put them into effect?

You should tell UCL what you think about the MORE subgroup’s recommendations:  <> and #UCLEnquiries