Selecting Oxford’s professor of poetry should not be trial by media

It’s time to change the system, argues Lucy Newlyn

July 9, 2015
Matthew Brazier illustration (9 July 2015)
Source: Matthew Brazier

The election of the University of Oxford professor of poetry – won this year by Simon Armitage – is always of interest to the British press, for obvious reasons. With an electorate of more than 250,000 Oxonians scattered all over the world, this is a unique post that attracts candidates of the highest international standing. Even the bookies take an interest in predicting the results.

But should the appointment of a chair at Oxford be subject to this amount of pressure? Is it time the system was changed?

The press has a vested interest in stirring up unnecessary controversy. This year, for the second time in six years, a candidate of absolutely outstanding distinction has been subjected to disparaging remarks in the press. The negative comments made in The Sunday Times about Wole Soyinka – his age, “grandeur” and alleged lack of interest in the post – were regrettable in every way. Although he responded with characteristic wit and dignity, the commentary unquestionably caused personal hurt.

How do we assess the damage done to Soyinka’s candidature by this article? One hopes that most readers immediately typed his name into Google, where they will have found a reassuring treasure trove of interviews, lectures, poems, news footage and other evidence of his abundant energy and continuing creativity. One trusts that the overwhelming supply of online material will have enabled them to form their own views. But disparagement has a way of lingering, once it is in print. (Private Eye, having already tossed off a disagreeable ageist remark, followed up with a “professor in absentia” tag.)

What is certain is that an unpleasant whiff of “negative campaigning” was introduced into what had hitherto been an entirely unruffled electoral process. Prior to these interventions, no one had been thinking in terms of having to justify the nomination of a Nobel laureate, one of the world’s greatest poets, but thereafter support for Soyinka turned into a grass-roots campaign.

Given Soyinka’s international stature, not just as a writer but as a much-loved and greatly respected champion for human rights, it is understandable that many people across the world are left puzzled, disappointed and angry with the result of the 2015 election. It’s a depressing thought that the outcome may have been influenced by press coverage. Negative campaigning – distasteful under all circumstances – is especially regrettable in this case because it lays the university open to charges of parochialism, possibly even suspicions of racism.

If he had been elected, Soyinka would have been the first African professor of poetry at Oxford. Of course, the university has no control over the outcome of the election – it is a democratic process involving potentially hundreds of thousands of alumni – but this is not always understood or remembered. At the point when the results are announced, it is always “Oxford” (the institution) that carries responsibility for the outcome.

The university’s international standing ought not to be compromised in this way by the parochial agendas of the British press. Oxford has – among many other resources – a superb reputation in post-colonial studies; a distinguished African Studies Centre; and a humanities division in which academics are producing world-class research on literature in many languages. It is sad indeed that the hard work these people are engaged in is implicitly undermined by the press, which inevitably shows favouritism towards “home-grown” talents.

Why not send out a stronger signal that “professor of poetry” does not (necessarily) mean “English professor of poetry” or “professor of English poetry”? One obvious way for Oxford to take greater control would be to select by confidential committee, with advice from outstanding writers around the world. After the experience of acting as Soyinka’s representative, I am drawn to this option, but only because it would reduce press influence. In all other respects, I’m in favour of keeping the post as the unique and wonderful oddity that it is – the only elected position of its kind in the world, involving a huge electorate and giving poetry a very high profile.

Assuming that the position continues as an elected one, Oxford needs to give careful thought to how nominees can be protected from damaging press coverage. The honour of distinguished writers is at stake, as is the university’s own international reputation. There is a danger that, in future, the most outstanding candidates in the world – poets of the stature of Derek Walcott or Soyinka – will be unwilling to accept nomination.

There are additional ways in which the electoral process can and should be made more international. For such a high-profile post, the 2015 election was given remarkably little advance publicity by Oxford’s press office. There were also difficulties with online registration, a cumbersome two-stage process. With most of the votes coming from the UK, the probability of a parochial outcome was increased.

And talking of inclusiveness, isn’t it time for students to be given a vote? The electorate for this professorship consists of more than 250,000 people. This year, 25 per cent of the 3,340 votes actually cast came from members of Congregation based in Oxford, the remainder from alumni. The majority of people who voted will never attend a single lecture given by the professor of poetry they have elected. Meanwhile, the university’s 22,000-strong student population – the very people who will be here during term-time, ready, able and willing to attend the lectures – is disenfranchised.

The Oxford University Student Union’s executive committee gave Soyinka a ringing endorsement. My hunch is that many of the students in Oxford’s international community would have welcomed the election of a great African intellectual who effortlessly combines radical, reformist politics with literary genius. But whichever way they voted, it would surely have been preferable to give them their say.

Lucy Newlyn is professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Rhyme and reason (9 July 2015)

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