Imperial is starting a dialogue with its community to deepen understanding of the College’s history and legacy.
The initiative comes as the College’s independent History Group publishes a report which sheds new light on associations with figures linked to past injustices, as well as additional insights into undercelebrated people from Imperial’s past.
We stand for openness, transparency and freedom of speech – and that will define this dialogue. Professor Alice Gast President
The community is now being asked to share their views on the report and its findings ahead of the College deciding what further actions to take.
The History Group was commissioned last year by Imperial’s President and Provost to examine the history of the College, with a focus on links to the British Empire. It included broad representation of staff and students, as well as external advisors.
Their report takes into account contributions and input from Imperial’s staff, students, alumni and partners who shared their knowledge and views to help the History Group’s research.
The commissioning of the History Group was part of a series of initiatives focussed on addressing racial inequalities and inclusivity. As part of this, the College recently launched new scholarships for Black British students, among other initiatives.
Great institutions and the people who make them are complex, sometimes problematic and always worth understanding properly. Professor Ian Walmsley Provost
The History Group’s report suggests that the names of buildings, rooms and other locations on campus should be used to project the College’s ethos and values, and that they should celebrate a wider range of Imperial people.
The report makes specific recommendations linked to the way Imperial currently highlights its associations with key figures. These include rethinking the names of some locations on campus like Beit Hall and the Huxley Building, acknowledging the Beit brothers' ties to the diamond and gold mining industry in South Africa and writings by Thomas Henry Huxley which contributed to a belief in a racial hierarchy of intelligence.
Decisions to rename buildings should be taken carefully, allowing for historical context, the report says.
The report also calls for the College to find ways to better mark the impact and contributions of brilliant but undercelebrated Imperial people like Abdus Salam, Margaret Fishenden and Francis Allotey.
Decisions yet to be made
No decisions have been made yet. The wider College community is now invited to read the report, learn more about the College’s history and share their views on how Imperial should respond to the issues raised in it.
The College’s President’s Board will make final decisions on the report’s recommendations in early 2022 once the Imperial community has had a chance to reflect on and discuss the report’s findings.
Free speech, open debate
As Imperial works to ensure significant aspects of its history are understood, shared and acknowledged, it is supporting an open discussion where everyone feels free to share their views.
Imperial’s President Alice Gast said: “While we cannot change history, we can find ways to clarify what it means, learn lessons from it, and ensure that we are not perpetuating legacies that we find abhorrent. We stand for openness, transparency and freedom of speech – and that will define this dialogue.
“This process deepens and enriches our understanding of this great university’s history, and the legacy we have inherited. It is our responsibility as an academic community to understand and reflect on that as we build our own future. That’s what confident institutions do.”
Imperial’s Provost Ian Walmsley said: “We want to work together as a community to consider these issues. Great institutions and the people who make them are complex, sometimes problematic and always worth understanding properly. Should we, as a result of this dialogue, change the way we mark aspects of our history – or even how we recognise prominent individuals – it will derive from a deeper understanding of our past. We will confront, not cover up, uncomfortable or awkward aspects of our past. It is very much not a ‘cancel culture’ approach.
“We will work to understand, but not be constrained by, our past. If that leads to changes in how we celebrate and commemorate certain figures, then that is an indispensable part of free speech, academic freedom and our own autonomy.”
The dialogue, discussions and historical explorations will take place with full protection from Imperial’s robust code of practice on free speech.
The report also asks the College to find new ways to honour the achievements of the Imperial community – past and present.
Despite the many achievements of women and ethnic minorities at Imperial, those contributions have not always been recognized in the way that they deserve. Figures identified in the report as deserving of greater celebration include:
- Professor Abdus Salam, former Imperial Professor of Theoretical Physics, shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contribution to the electroweak unification theory. He dedicated his life to the betterment of science and education in post-colonial countries.
- Narinder Singh Kapany, known as “the father of fiber optics”, was the first to transmit images through fiber optics, and laid the foundation for high speed internet technology. He completed his PhD at Imperial.
- Dr Margaret Fishenden was an industrial researcher in the Department of Mechanical Engineering during the 1930s and 1940s. Her pioneering work helped make Imperial renowned for its research into Combustion and Heat Transfer. This research contributed to wartime studies into aircraft gas turbines, flame-throwers, and airfield gas-burners.
- Professor Francis Allotey, Ghana’s first Professor of Mathematics, completed his undergraduate degree at Imperial in 1960. He is best known for "Allotey Formalism" - the technique used to determine matter in outer space - which arose from his work on soft X-ray spectroscopy.
- Constance Tipper was a Research Assistant in the Royal School of Mines from 1917 to 1929. She made her career mark by establishing the reason for the breaking up of the so-called Liberty ships in mid ocean in freezing conditions during WWII.
Professor Nilay Shah, who chaired the History Group, said: “This important work sheds new light on the complexity and richness of the lives of those who helped shape this great institution. This is the very nature of history and of humanity.
“Wherever our community takes these findings next, we will support and encourage more free discussion of our past, and a wider understanding of the figures that we celebrate on our campuses.”
Provost Ian Walmsley said: “We were clear to the group that we wanted them to be bold, honest and ambitious with their ideas. We welcome their report and recommendations, which will help guide our ambitions and align them with our institutional values and community experiences. ”
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