UCL & eugenics: Takeaways from the second town hall

How should we approach UCL’s long history of eugenics?

Writer: Jacqueline Hsing
Editor: Elly Chaw

Every time you walk down Gower Street into UCL’s Main Quad, you can see Pearson Building, just to the left of Wilkins Building. Similarly, if you walk down Torrington Place towards Tottenham Court Road, it’s easy to catch a glimpse of Galton Lecture Theatre nestled right next to Costa Coffee. These two buildings have been the focus of UCL’s Inquiry into Eugenics for the past year due to its commemoration of two men known for their pioneering of eugenics, a field used to justify racism, ableism, and classism. The Inquiry, established in 2017, is independently chaired by Professor Iyiola Solanke of the University of Leeds, while the commission is seated by UCL academics and members of the Students’ Union. At the conclusion of the inquiry, the commission will consider possible actions on prizes, spaces and endowed professorships named after persons who founded and promoted eugenics, as well as how UCL should approach its historical role moving forward.

Sir Francis Galton, for whom the Galton Lecture Theatre is named for, is widely known and accepted as the father of eugenics. Galton’s promotion of eugenics resulted in the implementation of policies that would supposedly improve the human species through controlled breeding. Upon his death, Galton endowed UCL with his personal collection and funds to create a Chair of Eugenics, which Karl Pearson was the first to hold. Though it may seem like UCL’s history of eugenics is in the past, recent discoveries of eugenic conferences secretly held on campus has necessitated a renewed look into UCL’s relationship with eugenics. 

A second town hall meeting on the 11th of October 2019, aimed to provide an update on the Inquiry’s work and address questions from members of the public. UCL’s Inquiry into Eugenics has so far divided its investigation into two categories: empirical research and archival research. As part of its empirical research, the investigation has held hearings, focus groups, forums, and has received in-person and written submissions. On the side of the investigation, the archival research into UCL’s historical role has yielded proof of eugenics ties to UCL, as well as helped create an aid for future researchers. While the commission at the second town hall did not present any recommendations or conclusions, as the investigation is still ongoing, members of the commission provided early findings and responded to audience members’ concerns. These concerns voiced by audience members in part focused on the potential erasing of history that may result from renaming UCL buildings. 

While members of the commission have spent the past year researching UCL’s history and its ties to eugenics, ultimately the most important factor of the inquiry is the opinion of the public. Less than 1,000 completed the online survey focusing on public opinion about eugenics, despite the 42,000 students who attend UCL. So have a think: how should UCL approach its historical role in the teaching and research of eugenics in the future? Should buildings named after prominent eugenicists at UCL be renamed? Or would that be erasing a part of history we should acknowledge? Should we treat the past as the past, or recognize the afterlife of eugenics at UCL?

A third and final town hall is scheduled to occur in February 2020, at the conclusion of the Inquiry and will present the final report and recommendations of the commission.

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