Ruth Padel Resigns From Oxford Chief Poet Post

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LONDON _ A fight over who gets to be Oxford University's top poet has set Britain's pens racing _ and weakened the careers of two well-known wordsmiths.

St. Lucia-born Derek Walcott pulled out of the race for Oxford's Professor of Poetry after letters were distributed highlighting sexual harassment allegations made against him at Harvard and Boston Universities in the 1980s and 1990s.

His rival, Ruth Padel, resigned from the prestigious post Monday after admitting she sent e-mails to journalists publicizing the claims.

Some commentators called the move poetic justice, but others say the controversy uncovered the racially and sexually charged undercurrents still coursing through the uppermost reaches of academia.

Padel, the first female Professor of Poetry since the job was created three centuries ago, was elected only after Walcott, a Nobel Literature Laureate, dropped out under pressure from an anonymous letter-writing campaign.

The mysterious missives, dropped in Oxford University mailboxes, reportedly recapped a 1982 incident in which officials at Harvard admonished Walcott for pressuring a freshman into having sex with him, as well as a 1996 sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by a former Boston University graduate student.

Walcott called the letters an attempt at character assassination. Padel denied having anything to do with them, but The Sunday Times revealed that she had drawn attention to the charges in e-mail exchanges with unidentified journalists. Some of her previous backers called on her to stand down.

"As soon as I was told yesterday that there were people in Oxford who were severely against me I thought it was the right thing," she told BBC radio Tuesday. "I didn't want to divide the university, I wanted to offer it my services, so of course I stood down immediately."

A message seeking comment from Walcott's publishers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was not immediately returned. But Walcott was quoted in The Times of London on Tuesday as saying he would not run for the position again.

Walcott said he had no desire to revisit "that awful business," the Times said.

Poet Jackie Kay mourned the loss of Padel, telling The Guardian newspaper that "the old boys have closed in on her."

"It would not have happened to a man, and I am very sad," she said.

Novelist Jeanette Winterson, herself an Oxford graduate, told the paper that her alma mater was "a sexist little dump."

The controversy has been splashed all over the British papers, with some literary pundits lashing Padel and others expressing disquiet that some people appeared not to be taking sexual harassment seriously.

Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said that, as a black man and a woman competing for one of British academia's most venerable posts, Walcott and Padel should have known they would be come in for a disproportionate amount of scrutiny.

"At one level, this mirrors the fierce contest between race and gender represented by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton," she wrote in The Independent newspaper. "Only it is more unforgiving and is playing out in what is believed to be that otherworldly, cerebral, ancient place of learning ... Oxford."

The notion that such an underhanded campaign _ with allegations of sexual impropriety, anonymous letters, and briefings to journalists _ took place at the English-speaking world's oldest university excited particular comment.

Guardian columnist Zoe Williams suggested that it was because the dispute pitted poets _ of all people _ against each other that it was so enthralling.

"You have these two people held, as poets, to represent the highest in human sensibility, and as academics, the most advanced in maturity and sophistication, and they're pulling each other's pigtails," she wrote.

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On the Net:

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