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Padel resigns Oxford post; admits she tainted Walcott

Just 10 days after she was elected as the first female Professor of Poetry at Oxford University--a position that is regarded as the second most distinguished literary title in Britain next to poet laureate--Ruth Padel resigned from the position on Monday when e-mails surfaced linking her to a smear campaign against the presumptive favorite for the position, Nobel Prize winning St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott.
Walcott withdrew his named from consideration from the election on May 12th following an anonymous letter campaign directed at Oxford academics calling attention to two charges of sexual harassment that had been leveled at him by former students -- one stemming from an incident at Harvard University in 1982 and another by then Boston University student Nicole Niemi that resulted in an out-of-court settlement in 1996. In an interview with the London Evening Standard, Walcott said "While I was happy to be put forward for the [Oxford] post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it."

Both prior to and following her election on May 16th, Padel -- who is widely respected as a poet, but better known as the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, about whom she has written Darwin: A Life in Poems (2009) -- denied any involvement in the campaign to taint Walcott and condemned its anonymity. Over the week-end, however, e-mails surfaced that documented Padel's attempts to make reporters from two British newspapers -- The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph -- aware of past charges of sexual indiscretion that had been leveled against Walcott during his teaching career in the United States. Notably, the e-mails made reference to the same source material (a book called The Lecherous Professor by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner) as the anonymous letters.

On Monday, she defended those e-mails as written out of concern for female students, calling reporters attention to information that was already in the public domain. "I acted in complete good faith and would have been happy to lose to Derek," she said, but admitted that taking her concerns to directly to Oxford University officials would have been a more appropriate course of action.
The scandal has brought an unusual level of tabloid attention to an institution that is regarded by many as one of the foremost bastions of high-mindedness and intellectual tolerance in the English speaking world.

While the honorary title of Professor of Poetry at Oxford is an endowed chair that carries a modest salary -- a stipend of under 5000 pounds or approximately $11,000 a year -- and even fewer job responsibilities (just 3 public lectures a year), in its 301 year history it has occupied by the likes of Matthew Arnold, C. Day Lewis, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and from 2005 to earlier this year, Christopher Ricks. The rotating five year appointment is decided by an election open to all "members of Convocation," which includes all former students of Oxford University who received a degree other than an honorary degree, plus all members of the University 'Congregation', comprising most of the university's academic staff.

--R.D. Pohl



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