Good, bad and disgusting news, w/ update

The good news is that Oxford elected Ruth Padel the Oxford Professor of Poetry, thus making her the first woman ever to hold the post.

The bad news is that she  dished her rival for the post by alerting some journalists to his reputation for sexual harassment.

And the disgusting news (in a possibly UK use of  ‘disgusting’) is what people are saying about the import of the allegations; e.g., Clive James’ remark:

“She would be wise to recuse herself and ask for the whole thing to begin again. Derek Walcott is unlikely to be a menace to young women at the age of 75, but he would have delivered an extremely good series of lectures.”

Among the allegations against Walcott:

The dossier [circulated in Oxford before the voting] included pages from a 1984 book, The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, which details the sexual harassment claim made by a Harvard student against Walcott. The student claimed Walcott took her for an after-class coffee, saying to her: “I don’t want to talk about poetry,” and going on to proposition her.

The dossier also included a 1996 allegation by Nicole Niemi, a member of Wal­cott’s creative writing class at Boston University. Niemi sued Walcott for alleged sexual harassment and “offensive sexual physical contact”, demanding $500,000. They reportedly settled out of court.

What really is going on when we say that if one is getting too old to harass students, then past incidents are irrelevant to one’s holding such a prestigious appointment?  And has James not heard of dirty old men?

It would, of course, be quite different if the charges of harassment were  denied, but allowing them to be possibly right but no longer relevant  is, well, something like disgusting.  Or at  least it invites the question of how one  is thinking of sexual harassment.  Allegations of child abuse don’t fade away when one is no longer  in contact with children; stealing from friends remains a blot even if one is no longer nimble enough to cover one’s traces.    Harassment, however, leaves one’s character in tact  – at least if  one forswears viagra? 

Clearly, it’s late and I should quit with that last thought!

UPDATE:  R. Padel has resigned the professorship.  See comments 13 and 14 below for lnks.

23 thoughts on “Good, bad and disgusting news, w/ update

  1. Another defense of Walcott is the “everyone does it” defense. That brings up issues not addressed in this post. The post isn’t really about Walcott; rather, it is about a kind of defense that admits allegations, but denies their importance on quite particular grounds.

    That defense, and possibly right and sad observations about race and gender in the election can be found here:

  2. A third argument being used is the one used by A. C. Grayling (who was originally a Padel supporter): that an academic position in Poetry is about poetry, not morals, and therefore the whole issue was completely irrelevant in the first place. You can find it here. I can’t think of any way that such a principle could possibly be applied consistently, but I suspect it would be a fairly common view among academics.

  3. Thanks, Brandon. I’m wondering about the claim that the professorship is about poetry, not morals. It is, after all, a professorship. And he has a documented history of relating to female students in a highly discriminatory way that reduces what they can learn from him.

    A similar point might be made about the ‘everyone does it’ defense. It’s horrible that there is widespread discrimination, and stopping appointing people when they’ve been the subject of complaints might make this a bit clearer.

  4. Hmm, I don’t know, this one seems complicated to me. There are dynamics of both gender and race on the table here after all. And there’s not nothing to the idea that the post is about academic merit rather than character is there? I’m not sure I understand the quick dismissal of this. What sort of character examinations and assessments do we usually do before we hire someone to an academic post? Which would we even tolerate as relevant?

    It does seem to me to be relevant that all the charges are decades-old, both because (a) whereas knowingly bringing a current predator onto campus would have clearly been morally unacceptable, the age of the incidents seems to indicate that he poses no present threat to female students, and (b) look, we all know that sensitivity to sexual harassment and codes of socially acceptable behavior have come a long way in the last 20 years – perhaps his behavior was sexist in a dated way, and he learned with the rest of us? The incidents I have seen described seem very ‘Mad Men’ and not shocking given the era. (Yes I know the 80s is not the 60s but you understand my point.)

    Look I am not defending Walcott’s behavior and I don’t know much about the case, so I am ready to be convinced. But we need to be sensitive to long history of seeing black men as sexual predators, not just the long history of tolerating sexual harassment on campuses. And it seems one needs to know a lot about the details here in order to know just what to think.

  5. What in the world could age possibly have to do with sexual harassment? Apparently he can speak if he would lecture and it often starts with speech. Age doesn’t stop a sex offender. I had a bio prof as an undergrad who put his arm around me while I was looking through a microscope, he was not much younger than this man.
    These ‘arguments’ are all drenched in hegemony, everyone does not do it and, as I often say when I refuse to read anyone in favor of slavery or poverty or rape, their character absolutely matter, who a writer is shapes their writing. It shapes who people decide to lecture about, one will rarely find a staunch capitalist teaching Leonardo Boff or Frantz Fanon just as I would never teach rawls. Who a person is and the respect (or lack of it) that they have for human beings bears on everything they do. I applaud her for letting him be known, as long as people continue to tolerate things of that nature on any level they will continue to happen, tolerance of harm is a choice that perpetuates the harm

  6. Good points, Rebecca. The book Lecherous Professors is at and one can look inside it. So I had just read about Walcott’s behavior at Harvard, which got him in quite a bit of trouble, and which he then went onto repeat at Boston University. It’s really awful and confusing to encounter that sort of harassment, and I do think it is relevant.

    But the fact that it is firmly in the past, if it is, might also be relevant. Your comment makes me think it’s really unfortunate that the situation has been described in terms of a witch hunt. Perhaps if Walcott had not quit but said upfront that his engagement in this behavior was a matter of public record, that he recognized its seriousness, but that he also had an unblemished record for 20 years, it would have come out differently.

    And it is quite awful that this chance of having either a women or a man of color is so tainted.

    And I should have said about that we could stop appointing people when they’ve been shown to engage in such harassment – it should be more than just complaints.

  7. I think the major issue here is not so much the particular case as how people are thinking about it. For instance, it seems to me that if a history of doing X (whatever it may be) is not adequate for preventing an appointment, doing X can’t be considered adequate for removal from an appointment, because the only difference between the two is that the standard of proof for the latter has to be slightly higher (due to things like due process). And likewise if an ethical issue is relevant to removal from a position, it is relevant to whether a person should be appointed to the position in the first place. To say it is irrelevant to one is to say it is irrelevant to the other; there’s no consistent way to mix and match professional ethics.

    I do agree that circumstances could have an important effect here, so that (for just one example) clear repudiation and a good record since the time would be something to consider. But none of the arguments seem to trade on that: they are three different ways of arguing that the issue of harrassment is irrelevant to the appointment.

    I also agree that when it comes to Walcott himself we should be cautious about what we are willing to believe and the evidence on which we are willing to believe it. But it’s still the case that there are three arguments floating around that effectively trivialize the issue of sexual harrassment; and the fact that they’re being made at all is, I think, a worrisome sign of common academic attitudes to the issue.

  8. I agree, Brandon. The major issue is how people are thinking about it.

    It also does appear that Walcott admitted to at least some past complaints.

    I think violetteleduc may well be right and that harassment’s stopping may not change all sorts of toxic attitudes. We’re talking about refusing to discuss poety with a female student in favor of making actually unpleasant sexual advances. Or at least one’s that sound, well, sort of disgusting. Body fluids (tongue) and all. However, that it is going to last until he dies is really conjecture, I think.

  9. Again I am concerned that I not be taken as trivializing sexual harassment or Walcott’s past behaviors. I entirely agree that the arguments circulating in the media that trivialize the behavior are deeply problematic and offensive.

    BUT: I don’t buy Brandon’s argument above. It is perhaps usually but not *always* the case that “if a history of doing X is not adequate for preventing an appointment, doing X can’t be considered adequate for removal from an appointment”. Sometimes temporality does matter. Some possible examples: (1) A history of alcohol abuse, followed by good evidence of effective treatment and a long period of sobriety? Surely it’s not ok to block an appointment on that basis; surely it’s ok to remove someone from an appointment if alcohol abuse interferes significantly with job performance. (2) Contagious illness? One can generate more such examples. It’s just not true that the only difference is the standard of evidence, as Brandon says.

    I am not drawing an analogy between sexual harassment and either of these things. But we can’t trust the general argument Brandon gives us above; it doesn’t provide an inference rule.

  10. Oh, also, if violetteleduc’s comment “What in the world could age possibly have to do with sexual harassment?” was aimed at me then she wasn’t reading very carefully. I said the age of the *incidents* not the age of the person. Entirely different point.

  11. Rebecca, I think she may have had Clive James’ point in mind; he seemed to think at 79 one is past harassing.

  12. Hi, Rebecca,

    I don’t see the parallel with the contagious illness case, since having a contagious illness isn’t a matter of professional ethics, which was the restriction I intended to convey and don’t think I conveyed very clearly. (Certain behaviors, e.g., clearly deliberate disregard for any danger it might pose to students, would obviously be; but it seems to me that a history of such behavior would also be relevant to the original appointment.) The alcoholism case seems to me to come much closer, but I’m still not convinced by it. If the history of behavior, rooted in alcoholism, that affected academic performance is really followed by good evidence of treatment and a record of sobriety then it seems to me the professional ethics issue is resolved, just as in a case where someone had an early history of sexual harrassment but later on had a clear reformation. This isn’t, I think, because the original behavior isn’t relevant to the appointment, but rather because the record since then also is relevant, and can sometimes be a factor weighing much more heavily.

    As I see it, the basic issue here is consistency in our view of professional ethics: we should be taking into account the ethical history of those who are appointed to positions for the same reasons we should be taking into account their ethical behavior when they have the appointment, and on the same issues.

    But I do agree that temporality matters to the extent that intervening circumstances, like clean record, etc. can matter, and may well be relevant to whether placing such weight on the original problem was a good idea in any particular case, like this one.

  13. Thanks, Rob. This is hardly a happy ending, and who knows if it is an ending at all.

    The comments are quite bitter; for example:

    Novelist Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s a pity she has been backed into a corner. What she has done is so much more ­trivial than her contribution to poetry. This feels malicious and nasty. We ought to be able to look beyond the woman to the poetry. This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn’t have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.”

    It is interessting that the defense of her actions here is quite similar to Grayling’s defense of Walcott; that is, in effect, the transgression (if that’s what it is) isn’t important compared to the poetry, though Grayling wouldn’t apply it to her.

  14. this is all simply incredible. so many things about it are icky. among the most striking to me: ac grayling thinks (and thinks it strongly enough to announce it to the world at large) that how academics treat their female students is simply a matter of personal morality (never mind the reasonableness of giving a professorship to someone whose ‘personal morals’ make it impossible for him to effectively teach 50% of the fecking population); and the bbc only bothers to mention *one* “accusation” of sexual harassment–no mention of the second time, no mention that he was (am i right?) actually found guilty of the offense. but then: why didn’t padel go the press openly? why didn’t she encourage the student who came to her with this info to talk to a uni official? or did she? it’s all so deeply icky.

  15. I have a somewhat different take on all this (see my blog for posting). I do not think that use of a professor’s power to bully or bribe students into having sex is comparable to being a naughty person or having a minor [past] moral failing. I do not see this entirely as a feminist issue – but, rather, as a matter of professional responsibility and doing harm to others.

    I would very much appreciate feedback on the blog.

  16. Well, a story from the May 1st, 2009, issue of Folio, the official Faculty of Arts magazine at the University of Alberta:


    The University of Alberta is beginning its second century with its first Nobel laureate on faculty.

    One of the world’s most prolific playwrights and poets, Derek Walcott will begin a three-year term as the Distinguished Scholar in Residence this fall.

    Walcott will spend six weeks each year teaching intensive poetry and playwriting courses and mentoring staff and students in those disciplines.

    “I am absolutely thrilled that the U of A will begin its second century of classes with a Nobel Prize recipient in the Faculty of Arts,” said President Indira Samarasekera. “Mr. Walcott is the calibre of artist that could go anywhere, but he chose to come here. It is because of the foundations laid over the last 100 years that we can build these kinds of relationships and attract extraordinary people to this city.”


  17. Hi Spirit of OT; nice to see you visit here.

    Let me clarify a bit, perhaps not entirely consistently. My original intent was to criticize how sexual harassment was being considered, and not to decide questions about Walcott’s actual guilt or innocence, or whether or not he should have the post. I do think sexual harassment is discriminatory and an abuse of power. It’s got to be taken at least as seriously as racism. None of that really speaks to Walcott today, over 20 years later. Nonetheless, an absence of evidence that he continued is not very strong evidence that he didn’t contine.

  18. Sexual harassment has “got to be taken at least as seriously as racism.”

    jj, I might be missing something here. Why draw this general comparison? Since you do draw it, why do you think that sexual harassment might warrant being taken more seriously than racism? Are you including rape as a form of sexual harassment? By “racism” do you mean only racist attitudes–as compared, say, to racially-motivated beating, killing, and hyperincarceration?

    More specifically with regard to Walcott, I would think that the way to take sexual harassment seriously is to consider seriously whether and how the old claims against him should bear on the present case. Suggesting, absent evidence, that he might have continued to engage in the same behavior seems to undermine taking the past claims seriously in their own right.

  19. Thanks, KM. Good questions about my too brief remarks. I should be much more careful. I think the “at least as seriously” was probably ill-advised and it may be that there are just too many dimensions of comparsion to say anything easily. I meant to convey that some racist words might be less noxious than sexual harassment, but of course, some racist actions have been much, much worse than, e.g., some unwelcome advances.

    But what I think I had in mind was that “he was disciplined 20 years ago by the university for sexual harassment” should be taken at least as seriously as “he was disciplined 20 years ago by the university for racist behavior or action” AND that in such cases one might be more serious than the other.

    I did say that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, as a number of people commenting in the newspapers suggest it is. But that just means “We do not know” one way or the other.

    The question of how behavior 20 years ago bears on an appointment today is very complicated, and it would take me at least a long time to figure out just what’s relevant and how.

  20. elp:

    Your comment goes to my thinking about this: that most of Walcott’s defenders seem to think students are fair sexual game for professors. Note M. Deacon’s comparison of Walcott’s conduct with the personal flaws of Auden, Thomas, et al. Just all naughtiness and harmless peccadilloes – no sense of the abuse of power.

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