Sex Pest Claim Rocks Race for Top Poetry Post

Article excerpt

Byline: James Tozer

HE IS the frontrunner for one of the most prestigious posts in the world of poetry.

But Derek Walcott's attempt to become Oxford's next professor of poetry has become mired in controversy after he was accused of being a sex pest.

Academics preparing to choose the new holder of the post - which is regarded as second only to that of poet laureate - have been sent an anonymous dossier detailing claims of harassment made against him by female students.

The sabotage bid has horrified supporters of 79-year-old Walcott, who point out that he is hardly the first poet to be accused of sexual indiscretions and say his global reputation - he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 - is all that counts.

The dossier, copies of which have also been sent to the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell, recounts how he was reprito manded by Harvard while teaching there in the 1980s for pressuring a student to sleep with him.

The allegations are detailed in a little-known work, The Lecherous Professor, and photocopied pages of it are contained in the dossier.

According to the book, in 1982 Walcott invited a female student for a coffee, questioned her on whether she had a boyfriend and then asked: 'Imagine me making love to you? What would I do?'

She spurned him, and subsequently reportedly received a lower grade. She complained to university officials, who ordered Walcott apologise. The dossier also details how in 1996, while at Boston University, he was sued for sexual harassment by another student.

Nicole Niemi asked for [pounds sterling]330,000, alleging Walcott had threatened to fail her after she refused to sleep with him. The claim was later resolved out of court.

Walcott, from St Lucia in the Caribbean, would be the first black holder of the Oxford professorship of poetry - previous incumbents include W H Auden, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney. With less than a week to go until the election next

Saturday, the lurid allegations have sparked fierce debate in the groves of academe. Walcott's main rival is Ruth Padel, who would become the first woman to hold the post in its 300-year history.

Professor Hermione Lee, an Oxford English professor who is backing Walcott, was sent a copy of the dossier. …