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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Padel's Resignation from Oxford

The AP via NYT reports:

Oxford University's first female Professor of Poetry resigned Monday after acknowledging she had helped publicize charges that her rival for the post had sexually harassed a former student. Ruth Padel, Ruth Padel [Pic from Simon Murphy]

the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, made history at Oxford when she became the first woman to be elected to the position of Professor of Poetry since the job was created in 1708....But Padel's election was marred by Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott's decision to withdraw as a candidate from the election after anonymous letters attacking him were sent to Oxford academics. British newspapers reported that the letters made reference to an allegation of sexual harassment made against the St. Lucia-born poet by a former student in the 1980s. The papers said the letters included references from the book ''The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,'' by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, which carries allegations against Walcott made by a Harvard freshman in 1981. At the time of his resignation, Walcott said he had never commented on the claims and would not do so now. But he called the anonymous letter campaign an attempt at character assassination. Padel came under increasing pressure after The Sunday Times quoted e-mails it said she had sent to two unidentified journalists drawing their attention to the book. In a statement announcing her resignation, Padel acknowledged sending the e-mails. But she said she did not engage in a smear campaign, explaining that she had only passed on information already in the public domain. ''I acted in complete good faith, and would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise,'' she said in the statement.  Oxford University, which has been embarrassed by the controversy, said it respected Padel's decision and that ''a period of reflection may now be in order.'' A new election is expected sometime before the current Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, steps down from his post at the end of the summer.

What do you all think about this? Is it wrong to draw attention to material in the public sphere--or to do so anonymously when one is the other candidate for the position? Was Padel engaged in a form of anonymous cyber-bullying? Was Walcott's resignation an appropriate form of just deserts? What if Padel had been approached by the journalists and/or offered the information on background and acted in response to student concern? Is it really enough to warrant the claim that she won the professorship as part of a "scurrilous ... campaign"? Last, consider this provocative, but probably unreasonable, claim by one commentor for the Independent:

With Padel too, the shockwaves set off by her emails suggests that ambitious women are not allowed to play hard. Men can and do use any weapons they have when battling against competitors, but not so the gentler sex. How many male professors across the land can honestly say they have always played fair to reach where they are?

I confess, I have no idea how this issue would play out in the US. Some of it reminds me of The Human Stain and Disgrace--two super novels by Roth and Coetzee, respectively.  Thoughts?

Posted by Administrators on May 26, 2009 at 07:22 AM in Culture, Current Affairs, Gender | Permalink


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The protagonist in Disgrace also partakes of the "lecherous professor" motif.

Posted by: Dan Markel | May 26, 2009 12:04:40 PM

What is the link with Coetzee's Disgrace?

Posted by: Stefan | May 26, 2009 4:31:50 AM

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