Professorial Misconduct

The British political establishment is currently mired in scandal owing to revelations about the widespread abuse of  so-called “second home” expenses allowance by greedy and unscrupulous Members of Parliament.  Combined with the country’s ongoing economic difficulties, this will undoubtedly lead to equally widespread disillusionment with the way our country is being run which will probably also lead to increased support of extremist parties in the forthcoming Local and European elections on 4th June.

You might have hoped that the ivory towers of academe might be immune from this epidemic of sleaze but, alas, that’s not so. Take the recent election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, which is claimed to be the most prestigious academic post in the country (apart from mine, of course). The Nobel laureate Derek Walcott – whom I’ve blogged about beforewithdrew from the race after an anonymous source circulated a dossier containing allegations of sexual harassment committed by him during the course of employment at Harvard. It contained pages from a book  entitled “The Lecherous Professor”  detailing Walcott’s attempts to persuade a female student to have sex with him; Walcott had received an official reprimand over this episode and had been forced to make  a written apology for his actions. A later case involving a sexual harassment claim against him (from 1996) also came to light, but that was apparently settled out of court.

I find it difficult to be too sympathetic to Derek Walcott, and  I do think he probably did the right thing by withdrawing. While it is true that students are adults (in reality and in the law), a Professor is obviously in a position of responsiblity for, and power over, his or her students. For a male Professor to ask a female student if she wants to have sex with him does not in itself constitute harassment but to do so repeatedly after refusals clearly does, and so does any attempt to influence events by suggesting changes to grades. To abuse an academic position in order to secure sexual favours is clearly wrong and the disciplinary action taken against Walcott  seems to me to have  been justified. Even if there is no actual coercion, I think it is still very unprofessional behaviour for an academic to pursue a sexual relationship with one of their students as it could lead them into dangerous territory. I know of quite a few successful relationships that have started out that way, though, and  I don’t want to be  sound censorious about behaviour between consenting adults. In general  I don’t think a person’s sexual life is at all relevant to their suitability for a job.  What I mean is that Walcott’s prior inapproriate acts do cast doubt on his suitability for this particular position.

Despite the revelations about his past, I still admire Walcott’s poetry enormously. Beautiful literature, just like beautiful music and art, is not made by saints but by people. We all have our flaws.

Anyway, Walcott’s withdrawal from the election left the way open for Ruth Padel (distant relative of Charles Darwin), who was duly elected to the Chair last week. She had distanced herself from the circulation of the anti-Walcott dossier and stated her regret that Walcott had withdrawn, but it subsequently transpired that she had actually drawn his past behaviour to the attention of some journalists via email. This news caused further uproar, with the result that she yesterday resigned the post only a week or so after having been elected to it.

Oxford University will now hold another election, but this fiasco has already put a stain on the Chair and makes Oxford’s academic world look petty and vindictive, at least to people who didn’t realise how petty and vindictive academics are anyway.

Even if Ruth Padel did not have anything to do with the circulation of the dirty dossier, I think it still was a mistake for her to send emails drawing attention to it. Having allowed herself to be drawn into the affair I think she made the right decision to resign in order to bring the sorry business to an end. It’s all a bit sad, though, and I hope there aren’t any more skeletons in relevant cupboards next time the election is run.

And the issue still remains of who it was that dished the dirt on Derek in the first place? If it was someone or some people wanting to help Ruth Padel win the Oxford position then it seriously backfired. Handwriting experts have been looking at the evidence to try and identify the culprit. Inspector Morse would have been in his element.

13 Responses to “Professorial Misconduct”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Extremist parties such as UKIP, who ask only for a binding referendum on an issue as great as Britain’s membership of the EU (something we have never had – the 1970s referendum was about the EEC which was a very different beast), something we have been promised, and which we have no confidence that any of the big parties will deliver…

    I too think that a professor should be free to ask out a student, likewise a doctor a patient. I see it as nothing other than free speech and I deplore all attempts to muzzle free speech, whether of this type or by pressure groups who cite a ‘right’ not to be offended. (For those who have seen my Christian colours on other threads here: Yes, I disapprove of laws against blasphemy.) The point about free speech that does not threaten action is that you can freely reply. I do think, though, that a professor or doctor who wants to proposition a pupil must do it outside tutorials. It is OK to arrange in a tutorial to meet a pupil in a pub, but if you want to start a ‘relationhip’ then the pub is the place to make that clear.


  2. telescoper Says:

    I was thinking more of the BNP than UKIP. The BNP clearly are extremists. I recall recently a spokesman for them saying that they were not Nazis but Nationalists and many of their policies were of a Socialist nature. Not like the National Socialists at all, then.

    UKIP began as a single issue party wanting withdrawal from the EU as you say but now campaigns on a range of issues, including the introduction of a flat rate of income tax. I see them as a right-wing libertarian party, not far from where many Thatcherites were positioned. Whether you consider that extremist is up to you, but it’s definitely extremely far from where I’d like to position my vote.

    However, I do share the opinion that the European Union gives voters even more reason to be sceptical about the political establishment. It is a profoundly undemocratic organization, and for British citizens not to be allowed a referendum vote on the constitution is indefensible.

    Freedom of speech can’t be absolute. It has always been tempered by wider considerations; the old argument about shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre and all that. I agree that attempts to restrict it should be kept to a minimum, but there has to be some form of redress if someone oversteps the mark.

    In the context of sexual harassment in the workplace this is usually dealt through the civil law; educational and other establishments also have their own codes of conduct to follow if someone misbehaves in such a way.

    The criminal law also contains provisions intended to protect individuals from various other forms of harassment. For example, the 1986 Public Order Act and its amendment in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act created the criminal offences of “causing harassment alarm or distress” and “causing intentional harassment alarm or distress”, where an offence is committed if an individual “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” It’s specious to claim that freedom of speech is restricted by these measures, which in no way threaten civilized discussion, in my opinion.

    (Incidentally, these offences also apply to comments made on websites…)

    I find it more difficult to support the new laws about “incitement”, such as the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which could be used to prosecute people simply criticising other people’s religious beliefs. It seems to me that it must be a poor kind of faith that can’t survive being questioned by others. If language is used that is intentionally abusive or threatening it is in any case already covered by the other laws I already mentioned.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I do not trust the BNP not to have an agenda beyond what they put through my letterbox and I would not vote for them. As for National Socialism: Hitler was an excellent practical economist (it is a myth that he rebuilt the German economy on defence spending) but his foreign policy was bullying and he was racist, with the dreadful outcome we all know.

    Yes, it was an evil act to lump religious hatred with racial hatred in the 2006 Bill, because you can choose your religion but not your race. This difference was pointed out in debate at Westminster, with examples of what could happen, but was met only with bland assurances that “the government does not intend anything like the scenario that the Honourable Member has outlined”. Why then draft a law that permits scenarios such as arrest for peaceful advocacy of religious views that differ from the views of others? We are getting a set of loosely-worded laws that allow the authorities to harass whichever group they choose. Governments over the last 20 years have been tampering with some very basic, very hard-won freedoms. We complain loudest about the ones we feel most strongly about, but it is time to support each other’s freedom of speech.

    I regret even the outlawing of racial insults. Only threats of violence should be illegal. When I have been abused for my differences in countries where I was of a minority I took it as a chance to learn greater tolerance, which I can then practice elsewhere and hopefully make the world a better place. There seems to be as much hatred of others among anti-racists as among racists. Hatred of people – distinct from their views – is always a bad thing.

    You wrote: “It’s specious to claim that freedom of speech is restricted by these measures [the Public Order Act], which in no way threaten civilized discussion.” If the Public Order Act were interpreted in a sensible way then that would be so, but politically correct police (PC PC’s) do not do so. A friend was arrested under the Public Order Act merely for reading out, during his street preaching, a list of things condemned as sinful in the Bible that included homosexual acts. They were not the point of his preaching, but a passer-by shouted at him, “Bigot, do you hate blacks too?” My friend, who hates nobody, pointed out that the man he was preaching with was black. Rather than engage in debate or walk on the passer-by rang 999 on his mobile phone. The police came in two minutes (!); they took the word of the passer-by and refused to hear what my friend had to say, arrested him, handcuffed him though he was not resisting, and drove him off in the back of a van.

    I wish this was an isolated incident, but such things are documented with increasing frequency. As Martin Niemoeller warned, “First they came for the communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist… etc etc; then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.” It is time for us all, left and right, gay or straight, to apply the aphorism commonly attributed to Voltaire, “I do not agree with what you say but I will die for your right to say it.”


    • telescoper Says:

      I’d be interested to know whether the person concerned was convicted or even charged with an offence under the Act. I think the police are obliged to take the complaint at face value when they arrive on the scene even if the subsequent investigation shows that no criminal offence was committed.

      At the other extreme was a case in Cardiff last year of a group called Christian Voice blockaded Borders bookstore to prevent the poet Patrick Jones from reading his poems because they were alleged to be “anti-christian”. The reading was cancelled because of safety concerns but of course led to much publicity for the book so, like most such actions, it was profoundly counter-productive (as well as being simply wrong-minded).

      Although I have contempt for the BNP I do not think they should be banned from presenting their views, even if they are racist and homophobic whether they are religiously inspired or not. Most people will see them for what they are and banning them would only give them another axe to grind.

      But there’s a difference between espousing a vile opinion and targetting an individual or a group for abuse and/or threatening them with violence. I think there have to be laws to deal with that.

      The problem is that attempts to deal with the various -isms by legal means generally assume they’re all equivalent. Often, though, such as in the case of homosexuality, freedom of religious belief appears to be incompatible with respect for others’ choices.

      I too think it was a big mistake to lump religious and racial hatred together. There have been prosecutions on grounds of racism of people for criticising Islam. This is simply illogical. Islam is not a race – its adherents are drawn from many races, in fact – so it’s simply a category error. People choose to be Muslim (or Christian, or Buddhist or whatever..) but they don’t choose their race. Far better to get rid of all blasphemy laws than try to make extra ones.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:


    Re what happened next, it’s sub judice and I’ll send you a private email.

    Re Christian Voice, I have turned out under their banner to picket a theatre showing “Jerry Springer – The Movie” which portrayed Jesus wearing nappies and acting like an idiot. Our demonstration was peaceful and we prevented nobody, actively or passively, from entering the theatre. I don’t know what Patrick Jones wrote and whether he was worth picketing but I hope the Cardiff demo was similar. The freedom to demonstrate peacefully is also under selective threat today and needs to be supported regardless of what is being demonstrated about.

    Re BNP – totally agree, let them display their obnoxious views for all to see. Likewise others we disagree with. I am against blasphemy laws.

    You say that “in the case of homosexuality, freedom of religious belief appears to be incompatible with respect for others’ choices”. Let’s not confuse the freedom-of-speech issue with the what-should-be-the-law issue. Peter Tatchell of OutRage supports freedom of speech against homosexuality, because he understands the point made by Martin Niemoeller (see my previous post on this thread). Re the law, we find ourselves in a democracy and each of us can work within its rules for whatever laws we believe to be right. Which raises the question: Is it ever right to break the law? I can only give a personal reply to that: it depends what law. English law and the bible are in accord over not committing murder, but the early Christians broke Roman law by refusing to worship the emperor, rightly in my view, and suffered for it.


  5. telescoper Says:

    What I was trying to say was that attempts to legislate for particular offences against religious belief or homophobia or racism probably just generate further conflict, such as when people claim a religious belief requires them to be anti-gay. Freedom of speech should be the default, with the law only playing a role as a last resort when a person or group is threatening or harassing another person or a group. I’m not suggesting that people with anti-gay opinions should be silenced any more than I think the BNP should. I don’t think, however, that anyone’s opinions should carry any special weight because they are derived from a religious perspective.

    I certainly do believe it can be right to break the law. Indeed, I think you could argue that it is a moral duty to break laws which directly cause others to suffer, such as some of those enacted in Nazi Germany or the apartheid laws in South Africa. Laws that you merely disagree with are a different matter, at least when there is a possibility to campaign for their change.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:


  7. Peter,

    You made a little point in passing that I think is correct, important and under-appreciated. Namely, that many of the actions that various new anti-terror or anti-discrimination laws seek to prohibit were already illegal anyway. For example, it seems to me that the main effect of the recent slew of anti-terror laws hasn’t been to increase the number of (terror-related) acts that are illegal, but to increase the number of policing options that are legal (most obviously the detention laws).

    Beyond that I’m with both you and Anton in wanting a society where it is possible to offend and be offended. I won’t quote Voltaire, but I will paraphrase Douglas Adams, who always argued that it was ludicrous to distinguish between opinions and beliefs, and specifically to allow a belief to be regarded as special on the grounds that it’s “religious” was an affront to anyone else who held equally strong views based in other modes of thought. Nobody thinks twice about ridiculing a horoscope-reader so it should be just as okay to mock a Muslim – or a scientific rationalist.


  8. You will be held to this promise . . .

    . . . although surely the thousandth comment implies it is you who should be congratulated? (If so: congratulations!)

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bring it to the Remnants dinner Daniel!

  10. telescoper Says:

    What wine goes with spam?

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Asti Spamante?

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