Poetic Injustice

Even the Nobel Prize can’t protect Derek Walcott from old allegations of sexual harassment.

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LONDON—At 79, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott is recognized as one of the greatest writers in the world. He is also presumably not at the height of his sexual prowess. However, during his recent bid for the prestigious role as poetry professor at Oxford University, 25-year-old allegations of sexual harassment resurfaced and ignited a very public discussion.

Targeted in a smear campaign by Ruth Padel, the other contender for the job, Walcott was once again called onto the carpet for allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior during his teaching career, allegations that are a matter of public record. Accused twice of sexual harassment—once at Harvard, the other at Boston College. In the Boston College case, a lawsuit was filed and settled out of court.

But all of this was known at the start of the process, and Walcott emerged as one of the two finalists for the Oxford post. That is when Padel began writing e-mails to London journalists trashing Walcott and stirring up the old allegations. The result was a backlash against Padel, who was even criticized for the written quality of the e-mails.

"There is aupposed [sic] to be a book called The Lecherous Professor, which has 6 pages on Derek Walcott's two cases of sexual harassment, which might provide interestigfng [sic] copy on what Oxford wants from its professors," she wrote to one journalist at the London Evening Standard.

So who is "guilty" in this battle of these would-be academic firsts: the first woman or the first black man to hold the post? Should Walcott ever be able to walk away from his sins of 25 years ago? Was Padel playing to the stereotype of black men with uncontrolled sexual appetites?

Sexual harassment is a serious issue, one hinged upon the abuse of power in relationships. And in this case, both Walcott and Padel abused their power. This stain on Walcott’s illustrious career was raked through contemporary spring mud by a contender who knew she was going to be beat. Padel, who was subsequently awarded the Oxford professorship of poetry, resigned after only nine days and apologized directly to Walcott and to Oxford University. However, the damage was already done. In an effort to achieve her own first, Padel led a campaign to discredit a preeminent black voice.

Walcott knew he stood no chance: He walked away, withdrew from consideration. In today's world, what "tarnished" black man is going to win over a white lady? Especially the first white lady.

Further, while his earlier posts at Harvard and Boston College put him in direct contact with and control over wide-eyed literature students, making sexual harassment charges quite serious and damaging to both student and professor, this Oxford post, the most influential in poetry behind the poet laureateship, is, according to the BBC, “as job descriptions go, the outline for the professorship is pretty thin—three lectures a year and one reading every other year.”

Here in the UK, opinions range from outrage to understanding. And people continue to weigh in on many issues surrounding Walcott’s withdrawal: From damning Padel for her muckraking to holding Walcott accountable for old advances on a former student in the states. 

Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton, Oxford English lecturer and a Walcott supporter, stated that the Nobel Prize winner would "be coming here to give grand public lectures, not to teach students in examined courses. So there's no question of potential danger and the issue is simply a reputational one—which doesn't seem to me to be relevant to his standing as a poet. The view that in order to be a good artist you have to be a good person was strongly held in the 1830s and ‘40s. I don't think we've heard very much of it since."