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 before – withdrew 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.