Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott has dropped out of the race to become Oxford’s Professor of Poetry after being targeted by a vicious and systematic smear campaign.
The poet blamed his withdrawal on “low tactics” and “low and degrading attempt at character assassination”.
Female college heads and fellows across Oxford received anonymous envelopes containing allegations of sexual harassment made against the poet over twenty years ago. The hand-written envelopes, between 50 and 100 in number, contained a photocopied extract from The Lecherous Professor, a book examining incidents of sexual harassment on college campuses.
In the extract, a female student who Walcott had tutored at Harvard University alleged that the poet had sexually harassed her, asking to her to imagine making love to him, then graded her poorly in the class after she rejected his advances.
Walcott has refused to comment on the allegations, saying, “What happened twenty years ago I have never commented upon and have never given my side of what happened. That will continue to be the case.”
Harvard University officially reprimanded Walcott following the allegations. The Harvard Crimson, the University’s newspaper, reported at the time that Walcott did not deny the student’s testimony. His teaching style was “deliberately personal and intense,” he alleged.
The Crimson published a letter by the student containing an account of the conversation. The student claimed that, after she sent the letter, Walcott was “cold and distant”, showed “no concern for my education” and “did not fully evaluate my work as he did with other students of the class.”
“I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself,” Walcott told the Evening Standard. “I already have a great many work commitments and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.”
Professor Hermione Lee, a campaigner for Derek Walcott, has expressed her disgust at the smear campaign. “I am shocked and astonished that someone has been using these sorts of anonymous tactics,” she said. “Why are these tactics being used? It is a conceited campaign, to put things into an envelope with no name.”
“These allegations are from 25 years ago and we should have an argument in a proper manner. It’s a very complicated, ethical question and it should be properly debated.” She added, “You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry, neither of whom had personal lives free from criticism.”
The extract also described how, in 1995, the poet was accused of sexually harassing a student in a class he taught at Boston University. The student claimed that he had propositioned her. After she declined, he threatened to fail her and refused to produce her play. She later pressed for compensation and punitive damages.
Lee expressed concern that the letters may have been sent by Walcott’s competitors. “I can only assume that they were sent by Ruth Padel’s campaigners. I would like to disassociate myself from such behaviour.”
She added, “If it did not emanate from her, she should publicly disassociate herself from it.”
Professor Pedro Ferreira, Ruth Padel’s campaigner, emphasized that the smears had nothing to do with Padel’s campaign. “I haven’t heard anything about this. I know and have heard of the book, but I haven’t heard that the book has been sent out to people.”
He added, “I know there are people who are angry about this but I completely deny Ruth Padel’s involvement with such a campaign. We have nothing to do with this and we condemn it.”
The editors of Cherwell also received the extracts along with hand-written notes. One read, “I really think Hermione Lee is mad to try to bring this guy in. What say you? Sandra + Jane.”
Authors around the world received anonymous notes from a “group of women students at Oxford University” requesting that a letter be written to The Guardian and the University Press Office in objection to Walcott’s nomination.
Walcott’s withdrawal leaves only two poets left in the race for the post, Ruth Padel and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Major literary figures had backed Walcott’s application, including poet Jenny Joseph, and professor Hermione Lee, and he was seen as the front-runner for the post.
Rival poet Ruth Padel said that she is “shocked by Walcott’s withdrawal, and very sad”.
Oxford University have refused to postpone the election, due to take place this Saturday, despite claims that voters are now deprived of a meaningful choice. All Oxford graduates are eligible to vote.
Professor Peter MacDonald, of Christ Church College, told the Guardian newspaper that the University should delay the election, arguing, “Several eminent people who would not have stood against someone of Walcott’s stature would certainly have felt up to public comparison with Ruth Padel.”
MacDonald added, “A professor is not needed before the autumn. The University of Oxford should not allow the poetry chair to be cheapened in this way.”
Hermione Lee suggested that “representations might be made to the Oxford Elections Office to postpone the election.”
However, the University said on Wednesday that the election would continue to go ahead on the 16th May. A spokesperson said, “We are disappointed that one of the candidates for this year’s professor of poetry elections has pulled out of the contest at such a late stage. We hope voters will still attend on election day on Saturday.”