Oxford to use online voting for Professor of Poetry election

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The University of Oxford has announced that it plans to introduce online voting for the 2010 election for the position of Professor of Poetry. Under the current rules, voters have to visit Oxford on the day of the election to cast their vote. The proposals, which require the approval of the university's governing authorities, would allow votes to be cast online or in person over a number of days. The hope is that overall turnout will improve: about 300,000 people were eligible to vote in the last election for the position as they were graduates or academics of the university, but less than 500 did.

The 2010 election follows the controversy of 2009, which saw candidate Derek Walcott withdraw before the contest after anonymous letters were sent to more than 100 Oxford academics giving details of an allegation of sexual harassment made against him in 1982. The eventual winner, Ruth Padel, resigned when it emerged that she had briefed student journalists about the allegations. Walcott described the election campaign as "low and degrading".

Although the university has said that it wants to make the election "more accessible", there are concerns that the changes will make the process worse. The director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, said that changes would not address "the bigger problem", as the election process is "notoriously bruising". She added that many poets in the past have refused to consider running and said that these reforms would "probably increase the number of good candidates ruling themselves out."

The post of Professor of Poetry dates from 1708, with the most recent holder being the academic Christopher Ricks. Former holders include Seamus Heaney and W. H. Auden. It has been described as the "second-best poetry job in England", after that of Poet Laureate. The professor has to give three lectures during the year and to deliver every other year a speech giving thanks to benefactors during the ceremony for the presentation of honorary degrees. There is no obligation to write poetry for the university during the five-year tenure of the post, although past holders have taken steps to encourage student poetry. Padel would have been the first woman to hold the post.