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Poetry professor faces calls to resign after smear campaign

The dreaming spires of Oxford University are rocked by an unlikely scandal involving poetry, sex and a dirty tricks election campaign.

LONDON // The dreaming spires of Oxford University were rocked yesterday by an unlikely scandal involving poetry, sex and a dirty tricks election campaign. It has resulted in calls for the first woman to be elected as the university's professor of poetry, the most important poetry post in UK academia, to resign just a week after she got the job.

Only last Monday, a delighted Ruth Padel, a British poet and the great, great granddaughter of the naturalist Charles Darwin, discovered that she had been elected as the university's professor of poetry, a post previously held by the likes of WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. But she got the post only after Derek Walcott, a St Lucia-born Nobel laureate and the clear favourite for the job, dropped out after allegations against him of sexual harassment - one dating almost 30 years - were circulated in an anonymous letter to 200 academics and former graduates who vote for the new professor.

At the time, Padel flatly rejected suggestions that she was behind the smear campaign. "Neither they [her campaign managers] nor I mentioned Walcott's harassment record and had nothing to do with any behind-doors operation," she said on May 12. Yesterday, however, the Sunday Times revealed that in April, before the anonymous letters were received, she had sent e-mails to two journalists tipping them off about the allegations made by female students in the United States against Walcott, rated by many as the finest poet currently writing in the English language.

"Some supporters add that what he does for students can be found in a book called The Lecherous Professor, reporting one of his two recorded cases of sexual harassment," Padel wrote, "and that [the US president, Barack] Obama is rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record." The revelation yesterday prompted some of her prominent supporters to call for her resignation and for an inquiry by the university authorities.

Melvyn Bragg, a Labour peer and Britain's best known arts broadcaster, who had backed Padel for the post after Walcott's withdrawal, said: "Even her mentioning Walcott's past in advance of the election was disgraceful. She should now stand down from the post. A shame, but there it is." Another of her high-profile backers, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, an award-winning TV producer and former director of the Royal Opera House, added: "She should consider her position. I'm very upset to learn this."

AC Grayling, a former Oxford lecturer and now professor of philosophy at the University of London, said: "I'm shockingly disappointed that she tipped off people about Walcott's past. Now all the issues should be examined by the authorities at Oxford. This is not all done and dusted simply because there has been a vote already." The allegations about Walcott, 79, date from his days lecturing in the United States. One, when he was a professor at Harvard, involved a female student who claimed that, after class, he had invited her for a coffee. Walcott is alleged to have asked her whether she had a boyfriend and how she made love, adding: "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?" She said she had spurned his advances and only got a C grade in his class.

Harvard reprimanded Walcott and ordered him to write an apology, but he refused, arguing that teaching poetry often involved a "deliberately personal and intense" relationship with the student. In 1996, Nicole Niemi, a student at Boston University, sued Walcott for sexual harassment and "offensive sexual physical contact". A settlement was reached and the matter never came to court. After the allegations were circulated in the anonymous letter, Walcott withdrew from the Oxford race this month. "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," he said at the time.

"I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election and 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." Padel, 62, continued to insist yesterday that, although she had sent the e-mails to the journalists, she was not involved in the anonymous letter campaign, describing it as a "horrible, murky area I know nothing about".

But even one of her own campaign managers, Oswyn Murray, a retired Oxford don, seemed unimpressed with the new poetry professor's election tactics. "I was not aware Ruth had alerted any journalists," he told the Sunday Times. "In fact, we decided not to mention anything about [Walcott's] past. She should not have done that, but life is full of maverick poets." The post of Oxford University professor of poetry dates to 1708. Matthew Arnold, who got the job in 1857, conceived the post in its current form and introduced the-then revolutionary ploy of conducting his lectures in English, rather than Latin.

dsapsted@thenational.ae