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Derek Walcott: Nobel Laureate and Predator

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Derek Walcott

Introduction

Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Born in Castries, Saint Lucia, the West Indies, in 1930, the poet has enjoyed a long, successful, if occasionally blighted, career in poetry and teaching.

In 2008, the scuttlebutt was that President-Elect Barack Obama had been seen with a book of Walcott's poems, which prompted the speculation that Walcott would be tapped to perform as the Inaugural Poet during the Obama inaugural bash.

Nobel Laureate and Sexual Predator

According to the Harvard Crimson, in 1982, while Walcott was teaching as visiting professor in English at the college, a freshman student accused the future Nobel laureate of sexual harassment.

The student reported that during a private discussion session about her poetry, Walcott suddenly announced that he did not want to talk about poetry anymore, and then he asked her, "Would you make love with me?"

The Passionate Subject of Poetry

When confronted by the Harvard administration regarding the student's allegations, Walcott admitted that he propositioned the student and that her description of the event was accurate. But then he defended his actions by claiming that his style of teaching was "deliberately personal and intense," a style that is required, according to Walcott, to teach a subject as passionate as poetry.

The student also revealed that when she first said no to Walcott, he retorted that he would not give up asking her, and he would continue to hope that she would change her mind. He even concocted a secret code that he would use in class. To ask her again if she would have sex with him, he would question her in class, "Oui?" to which she was to respond, "Oui or peut-être"—French for yes or maybe.

The student refused to play Walcott's game. Instead, she reported the harassment to her advisor, who told the student she had grounds to file a formal complaint against Walcott.

Further Professorial Misconduct

The student simply wanted assurance that she could finish the course without having to suffer further predatory behavior from her professor. Her advisor told her to write him a note explaining her feelings, and if that did not work, she should file formal charges.

After receiving the students note, Walcott did stop the sexual harassment but instituted another form of professorial misconduct by failing to give the student any further instructional guidance.

Instead of filing formal charges against Walcott, the student simply stayed in the class. But then after she received a C in the course, she was sure her grade had suffered as result of her spurning Walcott's advances; thus, she finally reported the unwanted sexual harassment to the college administration.

Less than a Slap on the Wrist

Harvard's Dean of Faculty, Henry Rosovsky, then wrote a letter about this incident to Walcott's Boston University, where the poet had taught for a number of years. Harvard's administrative board changed the students grade from "C" to "pass" —the first and only time that has ever been done.

And Boston University retained Walcott apparently without repercussion. The predatory professor was then allowed to return to Harvard on two further occasions since the 1982 incident: in 2003, for a reading of his own poetry at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, and again in 2005, for a conference at the Institute of Politics.

Walcott Strikes Again

Twelve years after this student's experience, Walcott allegedly assaulted another student. In 1996, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an account of a graduate student, Nicole Niemi, who reported that she was threatened by Walcott.

Niemi alleged that Walcott told her that if she did not have sex with him, he would make sure that her play was not produced. This incident happened at Boston University, but officials have never commented on this matter.

Niemi later filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against Walcott and the university trustees, stating that the college ignores female students who are the victims of predatory harassment. Niemi complained that because of Walcott's behavior she was forced to drop out of school.

Whitewashing by the New York Times

After Walcott died in 2017, the New York Times ran a hagiographic obituary for the sexual predator, glossing over his past offenses in the following text:

In 2009, Mr. Walcott was proposed for the honorary post of professor of poetry at Oxford University. His candidacy was derailed when academics at Oxford received an anonymous package containing photocopied pages of a book describing allegations of sexual harassment brought by a Harvard student decades earlier. Mr. Walcott withdrew his name.

The piece than allows Walcott to dissemble, allowing readers ignorant of the predator's past to believe the claims were merely "allegations of sexual harassment brought by a Harvard student," when, in fact, that student's claims were proven valid at the time she made them, and then he went on to commit further predatory acts.

Refuting the Sanitizing of Walcott's Predatory Past

The disingenuousness of that obituary did not go unnoticed, and Adam Cohen, former member of the New York Times editorial board, wrote a correction to the editor of the Times. The following is an excerpt from Cohen's response:

To the Editor:

It was disappointing that in an otherwise fine obituary of the poet Derek Walcott, you dismiss serious acts of sexual harassment that he engaged in (“Derek Walcott, 1930-2017: Caribbean’s Lyrical Voice and Nobel Laureate,” front page, March 18).

You present the incidents merely as “allegations” that “derailed” his candidacy for a prestigious honorary poetry professorship. The sole account of the episode comes from Mr. Walcott, who is quoted in a paragraph-long statement describing references to his actions as “a low and degrading attempt at character assassination.”

In fact, Harvard’s own account of what happened is entirely different. While Mr. Walcott was a visiting professor at Harvard, he repeatedly pressed a freshman student to have sex with him. After she refused, he gave her a C. When the student filed a formal complaint, Harvard investigated her allegations and confirmed them and changed her grade to a “pass.” The university reprimanded Mr. Walcott for his conduct, and the case led Harvard to adopt its first formal sexual harassment policy. The Times has previously reported many of these facts.

Sad that a talented poet should have tarnished his reputation by such boorish behavior. But what is worse is his attempt to justify his degrading behavior by linking it to the passion of poetry and then finally by accusing others of simply trying to assassinate his character. He had killed his own good name and reputation decades before losing the prestigious Oxford poetry professorship.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes