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Scandal Over Oxford Poetry Post Takes New Twist as Ruth Padel Resigns

May 25, 2009

Adding another twist to an unusually contentious episode, Ruth Padel announced today that she would not take up the post of professor of poetry at the University of Oxford.

Ms. Padel was elected to the post just over a week ago, after the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott withdrew from consideration amid a smear campaign in which details of decade-old sexual-harassment allegations against him were mailed anonymously to the Oxford graduates and staff members who would vote.

Ms. Padel had maintained that she had had no involvement in the campaign and wished that Mr. Walcott had not withdrawn. But over the weekend, she conceded that she had mentioned the allegations against Mr. Walcott to at least two reporters, and calls mounted for her to resign, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and other British newspapers reported.

According to those accounts, she wrote in an e-mail message to journalists last month that what Mr. Walcott “actually does” for students “can be found in a book called The Lecherous Professor.

Earlier this weekend, before Ms. Padel resigned, one of her supporters, the philosopher and writer A.C. Grayling, said he planned to lodge a formal complaint with the university about her actions. “The professorship is a very serious thing,” The Telegraph quoted him as saying. “This is dirty tricks and character assassination.”

Ms. Padel, who had been scheduled to take up the post in the fall, informed the university this afternoon of her decision to resign. “I genuinely believe that I did nothing intentional that led to Derek Walcott’s withdrawal from the election,” Ms. Padel said in a brief statement released by the Oxford news office. “I wish he had not pulled out. I did not engage in a smear campaign against him, but, as a result of student concern, I naively — and with hindsight unwisely — passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain.”

Ms. Padel added that she “would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise. I wish to do what is best for the university and I understand that opinion there is divided. I therefore resign from the chair of poetry. I hope wounds will now heal, and I wish the next professor all the best.”

Ms. Padel is due to appear at the Hay Festival of Literature on Tuesday, and said she would be “making a full statement at that time.” —Aisha Labi