- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

LONDON

Oxford University’s first female professor of poetry denied on Tuesday that she had run a sexual-harassment smear campaign against her main rival for the post as she explained why she resigned days after winning the job.

Ruth Padel stood down from the prestigious position Monday after admitting sending e-mails to two journalists pointing out already known claims leveled 27 years ago against Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott.

“I have acted throughout in complete good faith, but I can, of course, see that people can misconstrue that,” she said at a literary festival in Wales.

Admitting that she had been “naive and silly” to send the e-mails, she said: “I do want to apologize to him, but I cannot apologize for things I have not done, and I have not done the campaign.

“I apologize for anything I have done that can be misconstrued as having been against him,” added Miss Padel, the first woman to win the job - whose past holders have included W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney - since its creation in 1708.

St. Lucia-born Mr. Walcott pulled out of the race for the job after anonymous letters were sent to more than 100 professors at Oxford University reportedly detailing a charge made by a former student against him in 1982.

The 79-year-old - who has not commented on Miss Padel’s resignation - told reporters at the time that he had no wish to be part of a contest that had “degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination.”

Miss Padel, a great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, was elected professor of poetry on May 16 following a vote by Oxford graduates and academic staff, beating rival Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra.

Miss Padel admitted Monday that she had told journalists of the claim against Mr. Walcott after a student expressed concern, prompting newspaper coverage of the issue, but insisted she knew nothing about the letter campaign.

The row has prompted widespread concern in literary circles, and a number of Miss Padel’s allies urged her to quit last week to avoid further scandal.

“The professorship is a very serious thing. This is dirty tricks and character assassination,” philosopher A.C. Grayling told the Hay-on-Wye literary festival on Sunday, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“There was no way that the Oxford professorship should be run on this business of sexual harassment; it should be run on the merits of the poetry,” added Mr. Grayling, who originally was one of Miss Padel’s supporters.

The post requires the holder, among other things, to deliver three public lectures a year - plus an oration in Latin every other year at Oxford’s honorary degree ceremony.

An Oxford University spokesman said it understood Miss Padel’s decision, adding: “This has been a difficult chapter for all those concerned and a period of reflection may now be in order.”

A new election for the job is expected to be held at some point, although it is unclear whether Mr. Walcott will reapply.

Australian broadcaster and writer Clive James coincidentally voiced interest in the job over the weekend.

“It’s a very bad reason to stop a 79-year-old man who has all the qualifications, including [the fact that] he would write brilliant lectures,” the witty writer told the Guardian daily, referring to Mr. Walcott.

“It means a whole generation’s going to miss out on his wisdom. For what? For a couple of cases that have been moldering for 20-odd years.”

Asked if he would be interested in the job, he said: “You know - and this is strictly between you and me and millions of readers - it’s the only job I want.”

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