Ruth Padel becomes first female Professor of Poetry

Ruth Padel became the first female Professor of Poetry at Oxford University after she beat her only opponent Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in last week’s election.

Padel gathered 297 votes compared to Mehrotra’s 129 with 51 spoilt ballot papers.

The election took place between 10am and 4pm last Saturday, with the results being announced in the Divinity School at 5.30pm.

Padel said she felt “stunned” and “honoured” to accept the position. She commented, “I should like to thank the University, and the people who voted for me. I feel honoured and humbled to be given this responsibility, and shall try to carry it out as well as I can. My backers based their support for me on what they felt I could offer poetry and students. Now I shall do my best to fulfill their trust.”

Many onlookers were happy to see Padel winning. Nicholas Richardson, an Oxford graduate described her as “a good poet, good scholar and interesting scholar”.

Chair of the English Faculty Dr Sally Mapstone commented, “It is tremendous that May 2009 has seen the election of the first woman Professor of Poetry at Oxford and the first woman Poet Laureate. Ruth Padel will be a dynamic and distinguished Professor, and we are very pleased to welcome her.”

However, the event was overshadowed by Derek Walcott’s sudden withdrawal from the race four days earlier after sexual smear campaign.

Padel described the situation as “terrible, because it was nothing to do with me”.

“I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I always try to act morally”, she added.

Michael Henry, an Oxford graduate, said he was “disappointed at Walcott’s exclusion”.

He added that if the election had to be postponed, it “would have been more of a contest”, as more people would have put their names up.

Eloise Stonborough, the secretary of Oxford University Poetry society added, “I am of course disappointed that Padel did not take the opportunity to withdraw from the race and allow it to be postponed. This would have cleared her name of many of the rumours which are still circulating and allowed us to proceed on fair and honourable grounds rather than setting a precedent in which underhanded tactics are allowed to decide an election, whether or not either of the candidates had anything to do with it.”

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Some thought the University made the right decision. “The election shouldn’t have been postponed”, said Bill Dutton, another Oxford graduate. “These things happen in elections. Ruth Padel should have won anyway.”

A proportionally high number of ballots were spoiled. Only 477 votes were cast, fewer than around 500 people who voted in the low-key election of Christopher Ricks in 2004. Some have suggested that this is a response to Walcott’s decision to remove himself from the contest.

Professor Hermione Lee, the campaigner for Derek Walcott confirmed these suspicions. She said, “I believe that many supporters of Derek Walcott either abstained, or spoilt their ballot papers.”

Stonborough confirmed, “I believe that most of the spoilt ballots were done in protest at Walcott’s treatment and at the progress of the race after his withdrawal. I am aware of many who wished to vote who didn’t turn up at all, and obviously 51 of those who did felt that their only avenue of protest was to spoil their ballot, an action which exposes the absurdity of the university’s refusal to postpone the race and how the race was tainted.”

Many thought Mehrotra was not famous enough to compete for the post. Although well-known in South-East Asian circles, he is relatively unheard of in Europe.

Michael Henry commented, “while he is very popular in his field, his poetry is not widely known over here.”

Padel has a long association with Oxford University. She was a classics student at Lady Margaret Hall and went on to write her PhD on Greek tragedy.

She has also been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Chair of the UK Poetry Society since 2003.

The post of the Oxford Professor of Poetry is held for 5 years. It comes with a salary of £6,901 per annum. The professor is required to give three lectures yearly and to provide the Creweian Oration, a declaration of thanks to the University’s benefactors. It is the only elected academic position.

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