Andrew Tettenborn

UCL’s bizarre eugenics apology

UCL's bizarre eugenics apology
UCL (Getty images)
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Covid aside, how should we sum up the last twelve months? The Year of the Abject Apology fits rather neatly. The past year has witnessed cringing confessions by all sorts of institutions to prior complicity in slavery, colonialism or exploitation in some form or another. 

University College London is the latest institution to apologise, saying sorry because scientist and polymath Francis Galton, the 'father of eugenics', researched the subject while at UCL in the nineteenth century. Galton also left the university money in 1911, to found a professorship in eugenics.

This whole episode in UCL's history would normally have been decently buried. Teaching of eugenics has long ceased at UCL; Galton’s chair was sensibly transmuted into a chair of genetics in the 1960s. The only remnant left after this was a few rooms named after Galton and some of his long-dead followers, people whom (it is fair to assume) most students today would never have heard of.

Three years ago, however, UCL's connection to eugenics was forcibly disinterred. The Guardian ran a story that an honorary senior lecturer had hosted a series of private conferences on intelligence, including its relation to race and heredity, at UCL, at which a few speakers had referred to eugenics. A shocked administration ordered a thorough inquiry into UCL's 'history of eugenics'. Professor Iyiola Solanke, a Leeds academic and an expert in 'anti-discrimination law and stigma', led the inquiry. Its findings, published a year ago, were inevitable:

'The inquiry recommends that UCL acknowledges and addresses the university’s historical links with eugenics'

And now, UCL has apologised for its involvement in eugenics. And here the problem starts. Penning a proportionate mea culpa would not have been difficult. It could have consisted of a statement that times had changed, and UCL with them. Francis Galton, it could have continued, was a product of his era; his bizarre views, even if once pretty widely shared (by, among others, such far-from-conservative figures as George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge), were now universally rejected. UCL, in common with all decent people, condemned the bizarre idea that people should be selectively bred as if they were dogs or racehorses, and still more any suggestion that anyone should be subject to restrictions on procreation. It was, in short, time to reject past mistakes and move on.

But this was not to be. The document that appeared on UCL's website on Wednesday was an abject exercise in self-abasement and political activism, reading like a combination between an essay on critical social theory and an article by a left-wing professor from a second-rank US campus. 

UCL had, it said, been guilty of legitimising a 'dangerous ideology' which was contrary to its founding values of 'equality, openness and humanity'. By doing this it had 'cemented the spurious idea that varieties of human life could be assigned different value'. The 'legacies and consequences' of eugenics embraced racism, anti-Semitism and ableism. Its ideology had provided justification, not only for for colonialism, but also 'oppression based on racial and ableist hierarchy'. The management had been too slow to 'interrogate properly the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL', and failed to 'act with sufficient speed to remedy the ongoing effects on those in our community who are the targets of the eugenic mentality'; and the institution needed to 'apologise for honouring individuals who were leading eugenicists through the naming of spaces on campus'.

There are, to put it mildly, difficulties with this. For one, its reasoning is pretty sloppy for a top educational institution. Racism and anti-Semitism have been around for a great deal longer than eugenics, a specialised science which grew out of the work of Charles Darwin (incidentally Galton’s half-cousin) and was only coined as a word in 1883. To suggest they are its consequences is therefore very curious. So also is the idea that eugenic ideology somehow went on to justify colonialism. Colonialists may have been motivated by many things, but a belief in the scientific selective breeding of human beings was, one suspects, not high on the list.

But the problems with the apology don't end there. What does an 'ableist hierarchy' mean? We all want to avoid discriminating against disabled people, and give them every possible help to surmount obstacles, but clunky language doesn't help. 

The report also mentions the 'spurious idea that varieties of human life could be assigned different value'. Of course, white skin is not better then black skin, but how does this statement apply to the 'ableist hierarchy'? If we can cure cerebral palsy or mental illness we ought to, and we do. If proper medical advice can prevent a mother falling pregnant with a spina bifida child, a doctor is rightly expected to give it (as the High Court pointedly decided just before Christmas). This isn't eugenics. Yet UCL's badly-drafted apology fails to make a distinction.

Why does this sort of foolish statement coming from a supposedly top-rank UK university matter? Because not only does it combine dodgy argument and political propaganda, it will impact students at UCL. Reading further down the document, it goes on to say that eugenics is to be treated, not as an irrelevance to be sidelined (as it is, and should be), but as a heresy to be actively scotched. In future, students will apparently spend time, not on the subjects they have chosen, but instead being instructed in correct attitudes. They will be made to 'engage with the subject of eugenics, through activities including a specific module in the induction programme'. 

Nor is it only the students who will be affected. The content of what is said at meetings will, it seems, be watched to prevent any unacceptable views creeping back in. In UCL’s own words, 'we commit to closing down any opportunity for this legacy to continue unacknowledged and unchallenged. We operate in a climate of academic freedom, but we recognise that the right to freedom of expression is not unfettered'.

We can leave the reader to make up their own mind about whether this is a proper way to run a university dedicated to open discussion and free inquiry. But there is a way of bringing it closer to earth. Assume you were a parent with a child who was thinking of applying to study at UCL. Having read this document laying down its new academic priorities, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the kind of education they were likely to receive was worth your sacrifice, or your hard-earned money.