Former students have complained of sexism and racism at University College London’s leading architecture school going back a decade, alleging inappropriate comments were made about appearance and race and female students were sometimes brought to tears.
In a dossier shared with the Guardian, compiled by a former student, Eleni Kyriacou, and including testimonials from 21 people, they claimed there were “systemic” problems at the Bartlett, the academic centre for the study of the built environment at UCL.
The university said it had been “aware of issues” in the Bartlett school and was working to address them. It is launching an investigation into the student complaints.
In 2007 an investigation by the equality, diversity and inclusion team at UCL, which monitors grades, picked up issues with women being given different marks than men. The team subsequently monitored teaching and concluded female students were being treated differently. The institution worked to address this, making improvements in recent years, but did not contact Bartlett alumni to inform them.
The Guardian spoke to a number of students who have graduated in the last couple of years, who all asked to remain anonymous. One former student, of south Asian descent claimed staff were “damaging primarily female students”. She alleged she witnessed one staff member tell a student: “Your work is very sexy and so are you.”
She added: “It felt like he was making a move on her in front of everyone. It was very uncomfortable.”
She claimed a staff member had told a student he could not tell she was “brown”, as “‘she acted and spoke like a white person”. She felt her grades were affected by sexism and said: “I am still struggling with self-belief.”
One student claimed they made a serious complaint to Bartlett about a unit brief, which was published last year, that they had seen in text and video format. The video, which the student said caused hurt to many black and minority ethnic alumni, has since been removed by the university.
“The brief had created a connection between hesitancy in the use of colour in architecture and race and the Black Lives Matter movement. I found it absurd, ignorant, and offensive,” she said.
She said the video showed images of the Black Lives Matter movement. “So it used a lot of violent imagery and then with that, the voiceover was discussing chromophobia,” she said. Chromophobia is a persistent, irrational fear of, or aversion to, colours and is usually a conditioned response.
She said the video appeared to say that “if there are colourful buildings in the new world of joy then racism or sexism would be negated”.
She said it was “sloppy” and when she spoke to the director of the school he said he recognised the video as “awkward”, which was followed by its removal.
“I was shocked at the insensitivity and the violence of the images combined with the message of ‘chromophobia’. Having been a victim of racist teasing by my peers at the Bartlett, I felt very let down as the video and brief showed that there were tutors at the school who did not seem to understand the nuances of being black and an architectural student, and don’t seem to honestly address the idea that to some ignorant people being black, working-class, and an architect are all things that are not compatible.
“Students at the Bartlett, who came from all-boys public schools in London, called me the ‘whitest’ black person they had met. To them, studying architecture at a top school like UCL was a white and middle-class thing, not a place for a mixed-race, British, Black Caribbean woman with a working-class heritage.
“Rather than just take down that unit’s video and change the conflation of ‘chromophobia’ and the BLM movement in the unit’s brief, all unit intro videos were taken down and the brief was never changed.”
Students reported seeing other female students cry. Another claimed: “I agree that the Bartlett has a sexist culture.”
Kyriacou said she compiled the report after experiencing sexism while studying at the institution in 2000. She said: “I fear these findings implicate widespread misconduct that may have had a detrimental effect on hundreds of alumni, predominantly female.
“I urge UCL to investigate and to take bold action with regards to accountability for the misconduct that has occurred regarding staff members, but also to consider offering female alumni grade changes and being offered their RIBA part I [qualification] to those who need it so they can still become architects.”
Prof Sasha Roseneil, a pro-provost (equity and inclusion) at UCL, said: “We have been aware of issues in the Bartlett school of architecture and have been working hard to address them for some time. We are deeply concerned to learn about these incidents, and we will investigate these, and any others that are brought to our attention.”
In 2020, 40.5% of women at the Bartlett gained a first-class degree, compared with 39.5% of men. The Bartlett faculty of the built environment introduced a scholarship scheme last year to attract students from a broader range of backgrounds and to tackle the lack of diversity among the built environment professions.
Roseneil said: “We want to understand the wider and deeper issues raised by these reports, and so we will conduct a review into culture and behaviours in the school, as well as looking at the historical data.
“We are all too aware that sexist and racist behaviour takes place at UCL, and we are committed to tackling inequalities and to ensuring that our university is an environment in which students and staff can thrive in their diversity.”