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May 26, 2009 [feather]
Anatomy of an academic mobbing

As a workplace, academia is highly hospitable to mobbing behavior. Hence the scholarship of Kenneth Westhues, websites such as Academic Mobbing and Bullied Academics, novels such as Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and occasional articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and similar venues. These acknowledgements of time-honored ivory tower behavior are recent (though they may be said to have their ancestral roots in the work of people like Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, and, of course, Arthur Miller), and they mark the emergence of a discussion--and a self-examination--academics have long needed to conduct.

I've followed the unfolding contours of that discussion with great interest, and am particularly taken by the news--reported today in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and many, many other places, of how Oxford professor Ruth Padel effectively engineered the mobbing of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott when they were competing for a coveted Oxford poetry professorship.

A historic month for women in British poetry turned sour on Monday when the first woman in 301 years elected to Oxford University's prestigious chair in poetry resigned and admitted what she had previously denied--that she had played a part in a covert effort to taint her main rival for the post with old allegations of sexual impropriety.

Ruth Padel, 63, was chosen only 10 days ago for the Oxford post, which is regarded as second only to poet laureate among the formal distinctions for poets in Britain. Two weeks earlier, Carol Ann Duffy, 53, became Britain's first female poet laureate, a post formally created in 1668.

Ms. Padel's admission that she sent e-mail messages to two reporters last month alerting them to allegations of sexual harassment against her main rival for the Oxford post, the Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott, was a stunning turn in a saga of skullduggery that had opened a bitter schism in Britain's literary world.

Just as much, it has scandalized the ivy-walled cloisters of Oxford, exposing a culture of jealousy and mean-spirited connivance at sharp odds with the university's public posture of academic tolerance and reason.

In a resignation statement released to the news media on Monday, Ms. Padel said that she had acted "as a result of student concern" about the allegations of sexual improprieties, and that the information she had cited was already in the public domain. "I acted in complete good faith and would have been happy to lose to Derek," the statement said.

The battle for the post was a matter of prestige, not money. Chairs at Oxford and Cambridge rank their holders at the top of the academic hierarchy, and Ms. Padel's predecessors have included literary giants like W. H. Auden and Robert Graves.

But the chair draws a salary of barely $11,000 a year and requires nothing more of the holder than three public lectures a year.

During the campaign for the post and after her election, Ms. Padel, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, insistently condemned the smear tactics that led Mr. Walcott, 79, to withdraw from a contest he had been favored to win. Mr. Walcott, born in St. Lucia, has spent much of the past 30 years commuting between his home on Trinidad and his teaching duties in the United States, and it was those duties that led to the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Ms. Padel's resignation came the day after two national newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph, published articles detailing the e-mail messages.

The two papers said that Ms. Padel had noted Mr. Walcott's age, claimed that he was in poor health and pointed out that he lived in the Caribbean, not Britain. The Sunday Times quoted her as having gone on to say that "what he does for students can be found in a book called 'The Lecherous Professor,' recording one of his two reported cases of sexual harassment."

In the book, the authors, Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, describe how Mr. Walcott was accused in 1982 of trying to seduce a student in his poetry class at Harvard, saying at one point: "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?" According to the book, the student rebuffed the poet, and he gave her a C that was later changed to "pass" after the university reviewed the episode and reprimanded the poet.

Shortly after Ms. Padel's messages were sent, an article outlining the allegations appeared in The Independent, a newspaper with a strong following among literati in Britain; within days, anonymous packages giving further details were mailed to dozens of Oxford academics who had the right to vote in the election.

The packages recapped the Harvard incident in photocopied passages from the book, along with details of an allegation by a Boston University student, Nicole Niemi, who claimed in a lawsuit that Mr. Walcott demanded in 1996 that she sleep with him as the price of his helping produce a play she had written. The case was settled out of court.

On May 12, four days before the Oxford election, Mr. Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying it had "degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination."

During what remained of the campaign, Ms. Padel denied having anything to do with the mailings, and condemned the attacks on Mr. Walcott, saying that she revered her rival and telling The New York Times in an interview published days before the vote that "it seems horrible, this anonymous campaign."

After scoring an easy victory over the only other candidate, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, she told The Daily Telegraph her victory had been "poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with." She added, "Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry."

But on Monday, bowing to demands for her resignation by a mounting list of influential literary and arts figures, including some who had vociferously backed her for the Oxford chair, Ms. Padel acknowledged her role in the campaign, saying she had sent the messages "naively, and with hindsight unwisely."

Academic mobbing is really pretty common--as I've written here before, I think it's the rare academic who can say, in complete honesty, that they have never witnessed or participated in mobbing behavior at some point along the line. Still, the mysterious thing about mobbing is that it's very hard to pinpoint how it all begins. There is usually someone with a particular axe to grind somewhere -- but by the time the mobbing manifests itself as mobbing, it's a generalized, collective phenomenon that no one initiated and no one is driving. Administrators pursue the mob victim, at that point, not because they have a personal vendetta, but because they have a job to do, and policies to enforce. Thus does the banality of evil evince itself in the careful application of academic policy and procedure.

What's remarkable about the Padel case is what it shows us about how such things might begin. She admits that she started it. She tells us how she did it. And then she just sat back and allowed the mob activity to do its thing--all while deploring the activity of the mob. And her conscience is clear--even now, after she has resigned, she says she acted in complete good faith.

Caveat for readers who need one: This is not to absolve Walcott of his history of less than gentlemanly professional behavior, nor is it to take a position on who deserved the poetry post and who did not. It is merely to observe how one academic identified the Achilles' heel of another, and used that to destroy the other's reputation and credibility in order to secure her own advancement. Nice work, as David Lodge would say.

posted on May 26, 2009 9:45 AM

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