Amin Taha and RA architecture chief Vicky Richardson blast university for launching “Kafkaesque” investigation of staff
A group of high-profile architects and academics has accused University College London (UCL) of setting off a “witch hunt” of staff at the Bartlett school of architecture by current and former students.
The group, which includes Amin Taha, said that UCL’s decision to publish a bombshell report into alleged abuses at the school before the conclusion of a disciplinary process had led to staff being subjected to a “wave of denunciations”.
In an open letter, published in full below, the group expressed its solidarity with “the majority of decent and talented teachers” which it said had been named on social media blacklists inspired by the report.
It added that student activists were demanding that more than 83 members of staff should be sacked for “unspoken crimes”.
It also said that UCL had launched a “Kafkaesque” investigation of staff in which “those accused don’t know what they are accused of or who has made the accusations”.
Nearly 30 architects and academics have signed the letter, including Royal Academy of Arts head of architecture and Heinz curator Vicky Richardson and architect Piers Gough.
UCL suspended a number of Bartlett staff following the publication of the 120-page report, which was published earlier this month, and apologised for a “culture of unacceptable behaviour” spanning decades.
The school’s director Bob Sheil also took a “personal decision” to step down in response to the report. He had been due to leave his post at the end of this academic year ahead of US academic Amy Kulper starting her tenure in September.
It followed an investigation by intelligence firm Howlett Brown into allegations of bullying, racism and sexism.
The report described a “toxic culture” led by a circle of staff which was alleged to have created a “boys’ club”, with one senior staff member mentioned 27 times for a range of abuses including anti-semitism.
UCL also said it had launched a review of the school’s crit process, which the report identified as a significant source of “upset and fear” for students, to ensure it is made “fully equitable and inclusive”.
The picture of the school painted by Howlett Brown and UCL has been challenged by the open letter, which described the crit process as “important in preparing students for the practice of architecture”.
The letter added that the “creative tension” implicit in the discipline can only be explored through public exhibitions and review. It said the “vast majority of crits are educational, productive and supportive”, and that “longstanding campaigners” against the process were monopolising a “very narrow discourse”.
The group also questioned the report’s descriptions of improper staff behaviour, arguing that it had conflated serious accusations of sexism, racism and bullying with “trivial claims about informal staff-student socialising”.
More than a third of respondents to the report told Howlett Brown they had witnessed or heard of staff abusing their authority, which included engaging in intimate relationships with students.
One current staff member said that there was a “weird boys’ club” who had been dating students. Another staff member alleged it was “common knowledge that two [junior members of staff] had stayed out with the students and slept with one of the students”.
The open letter said “cultivating fear and recriminations will not resolve the problems that exist at UCL”, and called on the university’s management to “end this public spectacle which is masquerading as a disciplinary process”.
UCL, in its statement following the report, said that the culture of bad behaviour at the school “comes against the context of longstanding problems with the culture of the architecture sector more widely”.
The university added that it is “fiercely committed to lasting, root-and-branch change” and it had issued invitations to other institutions and to practising architects inviting them to tackle issues which had been highlighted in the Bartlett report.
UCL has been contacted for comment.
Open letter to UCL
30 June 2022
Letter for publication
We the undersigned are deeply concerned about the blacklisting of staff at the Bartlett School of Architecture following the publication by UCL of the Howlett Brown report in June. We write to express our solidarity with the majority of decent and talented teachers who have been named on social media blacklists inspired by the report. There are times when institutions need to discipline staff, but UCL has, in a Kafkaesque fashion, suspended staff and embarked on an unnerving and seemingly unending investigation into all staff in which those accused don’t know what they are accused of or who has made the accusations.
The Howlett Brown report relies on anonymous and confidential reporting, and conflates serious accusations of sexism, racism and bullying with trivial claims about informal staff-student socialising and studio reviews. By making the report public before the disciplinary process has been concluded, UCL has encouraged students to engage in public shaming. Student ‘activists’ are now demanding that more than 83 members of staff should be sacked for unspoken crimes. UCL has acted to preserve its reputation, while subjecting all its staff to an opaque, open-ended ‘investigation’.
Instagram activity by a relatively small number of students and former students has led to something akin to a witch-hunt. Anonymous complaints about tutors’ reviews sit alongside demands for their sacking. Many UCL students have gone online to defend named staff, but their voices are not appearing in the press.
Discussions about design teaching methods are always useful, but this wave of denunciations is not constructive. A culture of fear and unbalanced press reports has led to a situation in which longstanding campaigners against ’the crit’ are monopolising a very narrow discourse. ‘The crit’ process is important in preparing students for the practice of architecture. The plurality and creative tension implicit in the discipline can only really be explored through public exhibitions and review. Despite uncritical media reports of architecture’s ‘toxic culture’ the vast majority of crits are educational, productive and supportive.
Cultivating fear and recriminations will not resolve the problems that exist at UCL. We call on the UCL management to end this public spectacle which is masquerading as a disciplinary process. The Howlett Brown debacle is not consistent with the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ nor is it consistent with a culture of open and honest discussion traditionally associated with all good universities and art schools.
Vicky Richardson BA (Arch) MA FRIBA
Penny Lewis, lecturer, Architecture and Planning, DJCAD, University of Dundee
Alan Dunlop FRIAS FRSA
Lorens Holm RIAS, Reader in Architecture, DJCAD, University of Dundee
Roz Barr RIAS RIBA
Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project; course leader, Architecture, Kingston School of Art
Gian Luca Amadei, lecturer, writer and academic researcher
Brendan Woods AA Dipl.
Paul Finch, Honorary Fellow UCL
Shelagh McNerney M.Phil. Town Planning, Diploma in Built Environment Research
Tim Ronalds, architect and teacher
Vanessa Norwood, curator and writer
Sandra Denicke-Polcher, National Teaching Fellow HEA, Deputy Head of Architecture, School of Art, Architecture & Design, London Metropolitan University
Steve Jensen, tutor, Royal College of Art
Peter Murray OBE
Ben Addy RIAS RIBA
Kenneth Frampton, Emeritus Ware Professor of Architecture, GSAPP, Columbia University, New York