Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel The Devil and Webster is a witty, wise and topical look at life on at a small, prestigious college campus. Dean Naomi Roth, the first female president at Webster College, “one of the most selective colleges in the nation,” made her career by the delicate handling of a potentially explosive situation. She came to the attention of the Board of Trustees for the manner in which she dealt with the uproar among the residents of the all-female Radclyffe Hall. Problems began when a female resident, Nell changed her name to Neil, and started undergoing gender change treatments. The female residents wanted Neil out, but he wanted to stay. It was a hot subject, the press became involved and while Neil argued discrimination, according to the female housemates:
This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space.
With disaster diplomatically averted, Naomi, Webster’s “first dedicated professor of feminist and gender studies,” had all the proper credentials, including past activism and was subsequently made the next president. She loves her job, and her large mansion (courtesy of the college) but there are rumblings on the campus which grow into a major PR catastrophe, disrupt her life and bring her deepest beliefs under scrutiny and into question.
Naomi’s troubles begin when students begin camping out at the Stump–historically the location for Webster student protests. The cause this time is student discontent over the very popular Professor Gall (a notoriously easy grader) not receiving tenure. Normally professors who don’t get tenure just quietly pack their bags and leave, but in the case of Professor Gall, students begin championing his cause by a building a camp at the Stump. Naomi knows that Gall hasn’t been granted tenure because he’s failed to publish and also because he’s committed the cardinal sin of plagiarism, but according to the legal department, she’s can’t publicly air these reasons.
The number of protestors at the Stump grows with students flooding in from other campuses. Parents begin complaining, the media gets involved and then all hell breaks loose….
In The Devil and Webster, author Jean Hanff Korelitz shows there are no sacred cows in academia. On one hand we have a college with a past which includes institutional racism and massive hypocrisy–an elite school in which money talks to the unacknowledged competitive admissions process, and a number of disenfranchised students are admitted and yet are not supposed to feel ‘token.’ Also addressed, very subtly, is the way in which sometimes violent (even murderous) revolutionary cred can trump academic achievements–this in the most established of establishments. And there’s another issue of ‘genteel’ protests–protests that make everyone (the participants and the establishment) feel enlightened and ‘involved.’
Whatever cause or grievance brought Webster students to the Stump, what happened once when they got there was always pretty much the same: a clear statement of purpose, a plainly identified leader, and lines of communication smartly established with Webster’s president, whoever he was at the time, after which that president would at least pretend to consider the students’ demands or sympathize with their feelings. But then, once the protesters had picketed a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to emphasize their point, the students would always just … go away.
In the protest under scrutiny, student leader Omar doesn’t play by these genteel rules; he plays dirty, and Naomi finds the old methods of dealing with students doesn’t work in Omar’s case. …
This rich and topical novel skewers academia, its highly competitive selection process, along with the wealthy who buy an ‘authentic,’ culturally aware experience for their children that raises consciousness but only safely within their economic boundaries. The book argues that in the current campus culture of identify and identification, division inevitably results:
A basketball player from Georgia or a robotics whiz from northern New Jersey? An equestrian who’d bring her own horse (and a strongly hinted at donation to campus) or a waif from Bangladesh who was being sponsored by a famous tech philanthropist? How could you weigh innovation against opportunity? How could you put a value on simple security-the experience of growing up in a stable society with guaranteed schooling-when others had no such thing?
The author has fun with all sides of the debate here. From Naomi listening to NPR and Garrison Keillor’s “narcotic” voice while serving her daughter “humanely euthanized fish in good conscience, to old-school Professor Russell who believes the protest is “the inevitable result of years of capitulation to liberal idiocy.” While the figures of both Omar and Gall remain disappointingly murky, the author raises many issues pertinent to the nepotism, privilege, politics and mission of university campuses.