Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A male poet wouldn't have been blamed for rough tactics

Ruthless power plays in academia are as common as good wine

Related Topics

Dear oh Dear, shame and scandal in the faculty. The newly appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry, Ruth Padel, is beautiful, exceptionally talented, brainy, ambitious and a woman.

Her main rival, until he withdrew from the election, was the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, who is considered, with Seamus Heaney, to be one of our greatest living poets. Those who know him describe him as charismatic and proud. He is Caribbean.

At one level, this mirrors the fierce contest between race and gender represented by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Only it is more unforgiving and is playing out in what is believed to be that otherworldly, cerebral, ancient place of learning, precious (in both senses), Oxford.

The story so far. Padel, Walcott and an Indian poet, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra were nominated for the prestigious position. Walcott was the favourite until journalists and anonymous campaigners, believed to be ardent Padel supporters, dug up his past misdemeanours. He was accused of sexually harassing one student, a charge he admitted and later another, a case settled out of court. The incidents go back a long time. He withdrew his candidature, saying he was disappointed the process had "degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination".

Padel, who was then duly elected to the chair, claimed she had nothing to do with the smears. Now emails have been revealed from her to journalists, in which she does indeed direct them to examine Walcott's past. She finds herself abandoned by many of the supporters who say they are shocked by her behaviour. Lord Melvyn Bragg and Sir Jeremy Isaacs are among those who are asking her to consider her position. It is all surreal. And phoney.

Sexual impropriety and ruthless power struggles can hardly be described as aberrant behaviours in academic or literary circles. They are as common as good wine and agreeable international conferences. Lecturers have affairs with their students, whether consensual or not. And they routinely behave unethically to reach goals they are aiming for. One historian I used to know told me that when he was going for a fellowship, he started a whispering campaign in the department, insinuating that the only other applicant was close to mental collapse and was on anti-depressants.

The sound and fury over this professorship is not unconnected to the fact that the protagonists are outsiders, not academic establishment gentlemen au fait with the rules of a game played with nods and winks and a minimum of public fuss. This unholy furore will have traumatised tranquil senior common rooms. It is not how things are done, and certainly not in Oxford where disgrace and dishonour are covered up with marvellous efficiency.

When Walcott stood down, he must have felt he was being "punished" for something that is widespread in higher education, even today when universities have anti-harassment policies. When in Oxford in the early Seventies, we all knew who the letch tutors were, so too the obliging wenches who happily gave themselves to the lotharios. I walked into the office of my "moral tutor" to find him and a young woman certainly not engaged in matters of the mind. His large 18th-century desk was clearly good at multi-tasking.

The tradition, may I humbly suggest, is alive and well today. Many an honoured academic and laureate in this country has a less than pristine record. Walcott was judged by uniquely high standards and I do wonder if that was because of his race.

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?

This whole business of selecting Oxford's Poetry Professor has been unseemly. The two main candidates are brilliant poets yet flawed. Neither seemed to understand that for the first ever woman to get the position or the first ever man of colour, they would face exceptional scrutiny and impossible tests of worthiness. What has come to pass will only discourage others outside the magic circles. And so the status quo will remain for a good many more years.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Reeva Steenkamp is  

Since Reeva Steenkamp's death, 243 women have been killed by male violence in the UK alone

Sian Norris
Actor Brad Pitt  

The over-50s have the real voting and spending power — so why are we so obsessed with youth?

Stefano Hatfield
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London