Frances Leviston

In April, I asked Denise Riley if I could put her name forward as a possible Oxford Professor of Poetry. To my delight, she agreed; not because she wanted to win, or believed she would (we soon learned that Alice Oswald was in the running), but because, despite her strong reservations about the culture of literary competition, she thought that it would be good to present a field of female candidates. She didn’t want to run ‘against’ Oswald; but perhaps, if several women were to stand for this election, it would provoke a conversation about the nature and status of poetry, and about some of the triumphal language with which this recalcitrant art has come to be burdened. But Riley’s name did not appear on the ballot. Like several other potential candidates, including Michael Horowitz, who has spoken publicly about his disqualification, and Anne Carson, whose name was in several people’s minds early on, Riley turned out to be ineligible because of her age.

How could such a thing be possible? The post is seemingly designed with experience in mind: to lecture, once a term, for four years (it used to be five), on any aspect of poetry the professor chooses. It’s a position with enormous licence, and enormous prestige, previously held by a whole procession of men in their later years, including Geoffrey Hill, who lectured into his early eighties. But Hill was elected in 2010, and since then Oxford has introduced a compulsory retirement age, to be applied across the university. All senior academic and academic-related staff must retire ‘not later than the 30 September immediately preceding their 69th birthday’. Riley was born in 1948.

Not many people, even among those teaching at Oxford, were aware that the compulsory retirement age had been applied to the professorship. I learned about it from someone who’d heard it discussed at an English Faculty event, and eventually found the information buried at the end of the official job specs in a PDF. For the Professor of Poetry, you would expect – demand, even – that experience be valued, not discriminated against. And not only the experience that comes with age. No woman has ever held the post. Nor has a poet of colour. Applying a maximum age limit does nothing to address either of these oversights. Instead, it constructs an additional barrier to women and minorities, whose publishing careers often take off later than their male/white counterparts’. They also tend to take longer to attain the necessary profile to be considered for a position like the Professor of Poetry. No one would argue that Hill, or Christopher Ricks, should have been excluded from the role on grounds of age. So why should anyone else now?

When I told Riley that she was ineligible, she reacted with the utmost composure. But she did share one, ironic memory in response: forty years ago, as a single mother of two small children, she found herself barred from applying for college research fellowships because she was ‘too old’. She was 31. This is how we continue to treat even our most talented women: with obstacles put up at both ends of their careers, enabled – and created – by the blanket application of institutional policies that don’t recognise their value. Oswald will probably win the Oxford professorship ­– the result will be announced this afternoon – and that is a great thing. But we could have had Oswald and Riley, and Carson, and who knows how many others, all sharing a platform together – in the running, as they ought to be.


  • 22 June 2019 at 3:06am
    Mark Brady says:
    The irony is that Oxford University's policy was designed to foster diversity among their faculty.

    “The University was seeking, in 2011, to make available opportunities for women, younger academic staff, those of a different race, and those with disabilities. For too long senior positions have been held by those who did not reflect these groups.

    “The exceptions policy resulted in high retention of those making applications. This extended the tenure of the more senior staff who are the least diverse as they were mainly white and male. In 2015 the University revised the policy to enable it to create more vacancies to facilitate this aim.

    “We have come to the conclusion that, on balance, the EJRA’s extension provisions are a necessary and appropriate means of achieving this legitimate aim.”

  • 25 June 2019 at 12:24pm
    CW says:
    The fixed retirement age was abolished on grounds of age discrimination, nothing more. In justification of age discrimination, the University claims to be rectifying other forms of discrimination, which are not strictly relevant. But universities have age related problems that other employers do not. Most of us in the real world get sick of work and want to retire. Some of us have to carry on working for financial reasons. But many academics seem to want to carry on until they drop - preferably on full salary. Since there are a finite number of jobs in academe they can only do that at the expense of the employment or promotion of one or more generations of junior colleagues. And, absent a fixed retirement age, or any meaningful concept of 'redundancy', only serious illness or a prospectively fractious and unpleasant assessment of capability will enable their removal from office. Perhaps it would be better if the Professor were not an employee, but, if she is to be one, she is not a special case and has to be treated the same as anyone else. There are far more serious unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation than this (for example, the proliferation of zero-hours and short fixed-term contracts). It is probably hopeless to think that goodwill and common sense would suffice to sort it all out. There is always likely to be a grievance or cause for discrimination lurking somewhere.

  • 27 June 2019 at 10:45am
    Emma Sparks says:
    I've just read an article at Forbes about it:

    "Let’s face cold facts. People 60+ comprise nearly one billion of the world’s population and will total 2 billion by 2050. As more of us move into our sixth decade and beyond, many of us are going to need to and want to keep working — to stay financially secure, engaged and feeling relevant. All of those elements contribute to our good health, physical and mental.

    If we enable learning and working at a later age “and encourage and celebrate it, what may seem to be revolutionary today may simply be the social norm a generation from now,” Irving said. “Our conversations will be about not what did you do yesterday, but what did you learn today and what do you want to learn tomorrow?”

    Freelance Writer