Richard Adams, The Guardian, January 7, 2021
University College London has expressed “deep regret” for its role in the propagation of eugenics, alongside a promise to improve conditions for disabled staff and students and a pledge to give “greater prominence” to teaching the malign legacy of the discredited movement.
The formal apology for legitimising eugenics – the advocacy of selective breeding of the population often to further racist or discriminatory aims – is UCL’s latest effort to address its links to early eugenicists such as Francis Galton, who funded a professorship in eugenics at the university.
“UCL acknowledges with deep regret that it played a fundamental role in the development, propagation and legitimisation of eugenics,” the university said as part of its apology.
“This dangerous ideology cemented the spurious idea that varieties of human life could be assigned different value. It provided justification for some of the most appalling crimes in human history: genocide, forced euthanasia, colonialism and other forms of mass murder and oppression based on racial and ableist hierarchy.
“The legacies and consequences of eugenics still cause direct harm through the racism, antisemitism, ableism and other harmful stereotyping that they feed. These continue to impact on people’s lives directly, driving discrimination and denying opportunity, access and representation.”
Prof Michael Arthur, UCL’s provost, said: “UCL considers its history of involvement in eugenics to be in direct contradiction to its founding values of equality, openness and humanity. As a community, we reject eugenics entirely and are taking a range of actions to acknowledge and address our historical links with the eugenics movement.
“These actions – including our public apology today – are important steps towards understanding and acknowledging inequality within our institution and acting to ensure that UCL becomes fully inclusive for all our staff and students.”
The apology is in part a response to an independent inquiry’s report into the history of eugenics at UCL completed last year, as well as recommendations by inquiry members who refused to endorse the report, in part because it overlooked eugenics conferences held on UCL’s premises until 2017.
In 2018 it emerged that an honorary lecturer at the university had been secretly hosting a private conference on eugenics with speakers including white supremacists.
Joe Cain, a professor of history and biology at UCL who was one of the dissenters, said he was pleased with the apology and with the backing given to it by Arthur, whose term as provost ends next month.
“The apology is great and I’m delighted to see this happen before the provost leaves because I know how important it was to him,” Cain said.
Cain said his research into the history of eugenics at UCL found that figures such as Galton and Karl Pearson, its first professor of eugenics, were regarded as extreme even by their contemporaries, with Pearson criticised by peers for his “atrocious antisemitism”.
“This apology is good because it says plainly that we need to have better institutional systems to catch atrocious behaviour,” Cain said.
UCL last year renamed buildings and lecture theatres dedicated to Galton and Pearson, and Cain said that process needed to continue. Most recently, UCL has stripped the name of Ronald Fisher, who followed Pearson as professor of eugenics, from a research centre and renamed it the Centre for Computational Biology.
UCL said it would also invest in a comprehensive review and action plan to improve the access and experience of disabled students and staff, and improve access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It also plans to give greater prominence to the history and legacy of eugenics in UCL’s teaching activities, including a specific module in the induction programme for new students.