Officials at the University of Alberta are confident that a scandal that is tarnishing Oxford University and tearing up the British literary establishment will have little impact when one of its central figures, Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott, arrives in Edmonton this fall as the inaugural Distinguished Scholar in Residence.
The university did not reconsider its choice when accusations surfaced that Mr. Walcott sexually harassed students while teaching at two U.S. universities, U of A provost Carl Amrhein said. Nor did the Caribbean poet's subsequent withdrawal from an election to become Oxford's next professor of poetry inspire the Canadian institution to cancel the appointment.
"We put Professor Walcott through a typical University of Alberta appointments process," Mr. Amrhein told The Globe and Mail of the selection. "We did our background checks and we were very impressed. Nothing was brought to our attention."
Mr. Walcott was selected last month, just before the controversy broke. During his residency from September to December, he will conduct a master class in poetry with about 15 students, undergraduate and graduate.
Mr. Walcott's stellar performance in previous visits to the campus was the most compelling recommendation for an appointment, Mr. Amrhein said. "To have a Nobel laureate who wants to work with undergraduate students? This was a pretty easy decision for us."
Since accepting the invitation to teach in Edmonton, Mr. Walcott has played both the villain and the hero in a tawdry melodrama that no serious litterateur would dare to plot, splitting the British literary community and exposing the usually cloaked venality that lurks amid the fabled quadrangles.
It first climax came earlier this month, when Mr. Walcott, St. Lucia-born lion of post-colonial English-language literature, withdrew from a contest to be elected Oxford's professor of poetry, saying it had "degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination" after the emergence in British newspapers of accusations that he had sexually harassed students while teaching in the United States.
The low tale climaxed again this week when the winner of the election, fellow poet Ruth Padel, admitted to having circulated the stories herself and resigned from the prestigious office she had just gained.
Before winning the election and briefly becoming Oxford's first-ever female poetry professor, Ms. Padel had loudly denounced the poison-pen campaign that chased Mr. Walcott out of the running. Upon winning, she said she regretted a victory "poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with," adding, "Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry."
But this week, she admitted to having committed them herself, e-mailing journalists with helpful information on the source of the Walcott rumours - a book called The Lecherous Professor , which detailed accusations of attempted seduction while Mr. Walcott taught at Harvard University in 1982. In the emails, Ms. Padel also pointed out that Mr. Walcott was old (79 to her 63), unhealthy, and did not live in Britain.
The disgraced poet defended herself in a statement, pointing out that the accusations had already been published, and that she passed them on "as a result of student concern" about Mr. Walcott. "I acted in complete good faith and would have been happy to lose to Derek," the statement said.
While admitting her acts were "naive" and "stupid," Ms. Padel later mused that the smear campaign was in fact an attempt to undermine her own reputation. "It's all a terrible and horrible sequence of misdemeanours by people I don't know," she said.
The confusion and viciousness continues. "Which one of these hellcats has made off with Oxford's poetic repute?" the Guardian wondered after the double resignations.
Only one thing is clear: Ms. Padel has yet to receive an invitation to teach at the University of Alberta.