On Campus

Oxford poetry drama’s Canuck connection

UAlberta welcomes Nobel Prize-winning poet, despite accusations

Less than a month after withdrawing from a race for a prestigious position at Oxford University amid scandal, Nobel-prize-winning poet Derek Walcott has found a new (temporary) home at the University of Alberta.

The university says it’s happy to have the prominent St. Lucia-born writer as their inaugural Distinguished Professor in Residence, even as the British media storm around the professor’s role in two alleged sex scandals continues to rage.

Earlier this month, Walcott withdrew from the race to become Oxford’s next Professor of Poetry – the UK’s most prestigious academic role in poetry – after 200 academics as the school were sent anonymous packages containing photocopied pages from a book containing allegations that Walcott sexually harassed a Harvard freshman in 1981 while teaching at the school.

The book is called, “The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus.”

At the time of his resignation, Walcott said he had never commented on the claims and would not do so then. But he called the anonymous letter campaign an attempt at character assassination.

With Walcott’s withdrawal, Ruth Padel, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, became the first woman to ever hold the Oxford post since its founding in 1708. But after the British press discovered that Padel had alerted two journalists to the accusations against Walcott, Padel resigned after only nine days, leaving the post empty.

In her resignation statement, Padel admitted that she had sent two emails notifying reporters of the claims against Walcott. But she said she was not part of the anonymous smear campaign against her fellow author.

“I acted in complete good faith, and would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise,” said Padel in the statement.

For Padel’s interview with The Guardian, click here.

Speaking with The Globe and Mail, U of A’s provost Carl Amrhein says the university did not reconsider its choice of distinguished professor in residence when the allegations against Walcott surfaced. The fact that Walcott will no longer be Oxford’s Professor of Poetry is also irrelevant, says Amrhein.

“We put Professor Walcott through a typical University of Alberta appointments process,” Amrhein told the Globe. “We did our background checks and we were very impressed. Nothing was brought to our attention.”

While at U of A, Walcott is set to teach a master class in poetry with about 15 undergraduate and graduate students from September to December of this year.

“To have a Nobel laureate who wants to work with undergraduate students? This was a pretty easy decision for us,” said Amrhein.

Oxford University says it respects Padel’s decision and that “a period of reflection may now be in order.” A new election for Professor of Poetry is expected sometime before the current poet, Christopher Ricks, leaves the post at the end of the summer.

– with files from the Associated Press

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