In January 2018, it was discovered that the (now) ex-Honorary UCL Professor, James Thompson, was holding the controversial London Conference of Intelligence (the LCI) on UCL campus. The LCI has been a provocative event due to its alleged affiliations to eugenics and scientific racism, as well as suspected ties to neo-Nazi links. The event was hosted without the knowledge of senior university professionals, and the university later cut all ties with Thompson. 

In November 2018, UCL’s Provost, Professor Michael Arthur, commissioned an inquiry to examine UCL’s historical role and current position in teaching the study of eugenics, as well as any financial instruments linked to the study of eugenics which the university may benefit from. This inquiry was led by Professor Iyiola Solanke from the University of Leeds, followed by a report of recommendations, published in February 2020, which sought to implement measures to redress the pervading legacy of racism at UCL

Despite the report being a progressive first step in rectifying UCL’s ties to eugenics, the question still remains: how committed is the university in its wider approaches towards upholding anti-racist values?

What were the inquiry recommendations?

The report of recommendations aimed to act as ‘the first step in a process to create a framework of action at UCL to acknowledge and address its history of eugenics.’ It was categorised into three themes: teaching the history of eugenics; the dissemination of eugenics; and research into eugenics. 

A key recommendation, which had long been a contentious topic, was the denaming of UCL buildings that were previously named after eugenicists. The report also established an initiative to construct a framework for ‘conversation on institutionalised racism, classism, and ableism at UCL’. A primary goal was to implement strategic, practical, targeted and measurable action in fostering a ‘culture of caring’ for Black and Minority Ethnic and disabled students at UCL. 

However, despite a resolution to rectify UCL’s problematic history, it is notable that 10 out of 16 committee members did not initially sign the recommendations, because they felt that they ‘did not go far enough’. Professor Joe Cain, a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at UCL, also served on the committee, but was critical of the final recommendations:

“[The chair’s report] seemed to me to be focusing only on one issue in eugenics, one affected community, and one set of problems. […] 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)?” 

His critique underlines what he considered to be significant gaps in the methodology and aims of the inquiry, especially due to a lack of initiative in conducting a formal investigation into the LCI. Although the Provost later released a redacted version of the report, Professor Solanke’s decision to avoid investigating the LCI was, according to Professor Cain, ‘a lost opportunity to investigate if there was a larger body of activity, or supporting mindset at the university’. 

While the report had a clear focus on the historical legacy of eugenics at UCL, the ultimate lack of consensus on the final recommendations suggests that further action could have been taken to ensure a ‘long-term commitment’ in rectifying UCL’s institutional short-comings. 

Attitudes towards the recommendations

The inquiry report conducted research into the attitudes of both members of UCL and the public towards their proposed suggestions, to gauge the inflection of public opinions on the matter.

In order to understand how current UCL students feel about the implemented changes and proposed initiatives, The Cheese Grater conducted a smaller internal survey, in which 73 students participated. Our survey utilised three statements from the original inquiry survey, as well as two additional statements on diversity within the curriculum and student body at UCL. 

Q.1. While almost 40% of the participants in the original internal UCL survey strongly disagreed or disagreed with this statement, only 22% disagreed or strongly disagreed in our internal survey. 

Q.2. Less than 20% of participants in the original survey agreed with the statement. Similarly, our survey demonstrates a stronger consensus towards this idea.

Q3. Our data resonated almost entirely with that of the original internal participants, with over 90% being in agreement that the legacy of eugenics at UCL should not be confined to the past.

The denaming of the buildings propelled a prickly debate from both sides, which is reflected in the split in public opinion towards the matter. One student expressed the concern that: ‘to rename may be to forget, which may be to deny.’

Subhadra Das, who is a curator working with the teaching and research collections at UCL Culture, has been a prominent figure in this debate. Speaking to her about the politics of (de)naming buildings, she expressed that, “the overtly commemorative action of naming building [sets] the message [of] celebrating the individual.

“When I heard from Black students, and saw the hurt that was caused – well it’s equally easy to dename things.”

Her point highlights the emotional burden that many students of colour had to undertake when walking into buildings which were named after such divisive and bigoted figures. 

The university has officially removed the names of Galton and Pearson from their buildings, in line with the recommendations from the Inquiry; the Galton lecture theatre is now renamed as Lecture Theatre 115, the Pearson lecture theatre is Lecture Theatre G22, and the Pearson building has changed to the North-west Wing.

Furthermore, in order to decipher the university’s commitment to issues which transcend the history of eugenics, the survey questioned students about the diversity and inclusivity within the curriculum and the wider establishment.


Q.5. An overwhelming majority of participants (over 75%) agreed that UCL was a welcoming space for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. 


Q.4. While almost half of the students questioned felt that the curriculum at UCL is diversified, over a third of participants disagreed, to varying extents, with the statement. This divide in opinion implies the need for a greater dialogue about the inclusivity of the curriculum. It is also important to note that our data did not gather equalised responses across all UCL faculties, and this may be a factor attributing to the discrepancies in opinion. From the student responses received, it can be understood that initiatives towards decolonising the curriculum also differed across departments. 

Decolonising the curriculum

With over a third of participants expressing discontent towards diversity within UCL’s curriculum, the data suggests that there is a lacuna in the amount of culturally-representative material taught. 

A student from the Institute of Education (IoE) illustrated what they believed to be an inertia in the process of decolonisation:

 “As a student rep for [my] course, [I] have received a lot of complaints on the lack of diversity at the Institute of Education (both in terms of speakers and student representation). Efforts have been made from our tutors to diversify our curriculum, but without major success.”

Another student from the English department highlighted that:

 “The English curriculum has undergone some changes to make our readings more diversified – but it has to get better from here”, citing the lack of Asian representation in their first-year modules as a key problem. “The course has so far fallen short of creating a more balanced narrative of the English literary history.”

In 2019, UCL Changemakers launched an endeavour to raise awareness about decolonising the curriculum; this ‘Decolonising the Curriculum Week’ took place in November 2019, with the goal of catalysing a larger discussion about the need for diversifying the material taught at UCL.

This initiative was also complemented by a parallel project called ‘Let’s Talk About Race and Racism’, which was launched in November 2019. Its intention was to focus on anti-racist education, and to equip people with an anti-racist toolkit of knowledge from which they could challenge instances of racism. 

Moreover, there have been many recent student-led initiatives to address the lack of diversity within departmental modules. 

Dr Cathy Elliott, from the Department of Political Science, said that the department were in the ‘early stages’ of developing a ‘central point where tutors can access resources’ about topics that students would like to learn about. They have been allocated a £700 grant from UCL Changemakers, which they believe is a step towards a more ‘diverse, inclusive and even decolonised curriculum that students would like to see’.

A Town Hall Meeting held by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (A&H) in November 2020 outlined some key aims that were in progress to sustain the process of decolonisation. 

Dr Helene Neveu Kringelbach, the Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Faculty, clarified a key set of goals that are supposed to be implemented across a sustained period of time. These measures included ‘funding more scholarships and support for BAME students at UCL, [and setting up] curricular workshops, to discuss what anti-racist pedagogy may look like.’

Nonetheless, it is equally important to critically consider what is meant by ‘decolonising the curriculum’, because it exceeds the act of simply adjusting a reading list or a module.

Professor Paul Gilroy, who is the inaugural Director at the new Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, acknowledged that there was more to decolonisation than just changing the curriculum. The establishment of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre is another fruitful step in affirming the validity of race studies as real, academic scholarship, which is what Professor Gilroy envisioned to do. The Centre is a necessary site for examining race relations as they exist in today’s divided society. 

He also emphasised a need for ‘supporting people transitioning from undergraduate study to postgraduate study’, as well as aiding their transition from postdoctoral study into the professional world. 

“It’s all very well having that commitment to changing the curriculum, but who gets a chance to do a PhD? One of the things UCL has done very well has been supporting Black and Minority Ethnic students undertaking a PhD. However, there is much work to be done.

“For me, the politics of diversity has to look at questions of economic inequality. I am not content with definitions of diversity that looks at ‘decolonising the 1%.

“We have to look at which groups are in need, and which measures allow us to address structural factors in their holistic form.”

His statement highlights the need for the university to undertake a strategic and intersectional approach – especially if it is committed to enforcing institutional change.

Redressing the structural inequalities

Despite the clear barriers that Black and Minority Ethnic students have faced at the university, there is still optimism for a brighter future.

There have been multiple initiatives to remedy the existing, structural problems that disproportionately affect BME students at university. Of these, the UCL Attainment Project was launched in 2016, following the discovery of a ‘BME attainment gap’ at UCL. Although this margin was said to not be ‘very large’, it is significant that Black students had the highest attainment gap of 28.3%, while Chinese students had the smallest gap within the demographic, of just 6.6%. There was also a variation in this data based on different subject disciplines. 

Potential causes of the gap were thought to range from a ‘lack of diversity and representation in the curriculum [and] staff and role models’, to ‘implicit / unconscious bias’ within institutions.

To address this, the Project created interventions such as ‘working in partnership with students, colleagues and other institutions’, as well as ‘developing tailored resources and training to support staff’, such as unconscious bias training and resource banks. 

The Faculty of A&H also delineated their aims to create BME staff and student networks, which appears to be a constructive step in improving inclusivity. 

What is notable is how interlinked these problems are; it is evident, then, that the university should examine the issues of decolonising the curriculum, redressing the BME attainment gap, and confronting its racist history, in connection with each other. 

What is next for UCL?

Change does not happen overnight. It is difficult to calculate how adequately UCL is committed to anti-racism as an institution, because there is inevitably a varying approach towards anti-racism which can differ across departments.

Subhadra Das underscored the need for the university to work in a ‘cross-disciplinary manner’ so as to achieve a more comprehensive impact in the process of decolonisation. The rise in cross-faculty initiatives has laid the foundation for greater collaboration across the institution, which is required if UCL is truly committed to effectuating lasting change.

Concerning his hopes for the future, Professor Gilroy felt ‘positive to see how people have been responding to these questions on the inside’, and also commended the work undertaken by the Students Union. 

Although it has been difficult for UCL to divorce itself from the legacy of eugenics, because the principles of the study still permeate the institution today, there is increasing impetus for change. In May 2020, the killing of George Floyd catalysed a wider dialogue about the existence of structural racism in society. UCL have since undertaken considerable action to acknowledge their history from a more critical standpoint. They can now propel this momentum by continuing to work with the student body, staff and the Students Union to build a community which truly reflects the values of equality and diversity.


Update: As of 7th January 2021, UCL have issued a formal public apology for their role in the development, propagation and legitimisation of eugenics.

Riddhi Kanetkar

Additional reporting: Alfie Pannell 

This appeared in CG Issue 75