UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 29, 2009

GREAT MOMENTS IN ACADEMIA

NY Times - A historic month for women in British poetry turned sour on hen the first woman in 301 years elected to Oxford University's prestigious chair in poetry resigned and admitted what she had previously denied - that she had played a part in a covert effort to taint her main rival for the post with old allegations of sexual impropriety.

Derek Walcott, 79, was the main rival of Ms. Padel. Ruth Padel, 63, was chosen only 10 days ago for the Oxford post, which is regarded as second only to poet laureate among the formal distinctions for poets in Britain. Two weeks earlier, Carol Ann Duffy, 53, became Britain's first female poet laureate, a post formally created in 1668.

Ms. Padel's admission that she sent e-mail messages to two reporters last month alerting them to allegations of sexual harassment against her main rival for the Oxford post, the Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott, was a stunning turn in a saga of skullduggery that had opened a bitter schism in Britain's literary world.

Just as much, it has scandalized the ivy-walled cloisters of Oxford, exposing a culture of jealousy and mean-spirited connivance at sharp odds with the university's public posture of academic tolerance and reason. . .

During the campaign for the post and after her election, Ms. Padel, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, insistently condemned the smear tactics that led Mr. Walcott, 79, to withdraw from a contest he had been favored to win. Mr. Walcott, born in St. Lucia, has spent much of the past 30 years commuting between his home on Trinidad and his teaching duties in the United States, and it was those duties that led to the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Ms. Padel's resignation came the day after two national newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph, published articles detailing the e-mail messages.

The two papers said that Ms. Padel had noted Mr. Walcott's age, claimed that he was in poor health and pointed out that he lived in the Caribbean, not Britain. The Sunday Times quoted her as having gone on to say that "what he does for students can be found in a book called 'The Lecherous Professor,' recording one of his two reported cases of sexual harassment."

In the book, the authors, Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, describe how Mr. Walcott was accused in 1982 of trying to seduce a student in his poetry class at Harvard, saying at one point: "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?" According to the book, the student rebuffed the poet, and he gave her a C that was later changed to "pass" after the university reviewed the episode and reprimanded the poet.. . .

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