Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oxford professor of poetry Ruth Padel resigns after smear allegations

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Ruth Padel, the first woman elected Oxford's professor of poetry, has resigned following claims she tipped off ­journalists about allegations that her chief rival for the post, Derek Walcott, had sexually ­harassed students.Padel won the vote nine days ago.
The so-called smear campaign saw up to 100 Oxford academics sent ­photocopied pages from a book detailing a sexual ­harassment claim made against Walcott by a student at Harvard in 1982. Widely felt to be the favoured candidate of the Oxford English faculty, the Nobel laureate resigned from the race on 12 May.

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...Fascinating though these questions may be, they are, unfortunately, of little relevance in this case. The fact is that one of Walcott's students complained she was given a C-grade because she spurned his advances, and was awarded a better grade on appeal. This points to his unsuitability as a professor, not an artist. The Byron analogy doesn't stand up at all: many parents would encourage their teenage daughters to read Byron's poetry, but would be less kindly disposed to him teaching their daughters about the mysteries of verse in person, particularly if he had defended himself in the farcical terms that Walcott did, claiming that his teaching style is "deliberately personal and intense
But more importantly – and here Walcott's supporters would surely agree – the gossip was a distraction from what should really have been debated. Walcott may have been the poet of greater stature, but would he, or his closest competitor, Ruth Padel, have made the better professor of poetry? Might Padel be the better lecturer and, being less in demand, have more time and energy to devote to the job? It's an open question, but it's certainly the one I would care more about if I were casting a ballot. A shame, then, that voters no longer have the chance to decide.

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