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

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:23

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.


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