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The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 21, 2017

The Devil and Webster is a fascinating (if not entirely convincing) look at the liberal president of a highly-regarded liberal arts college as she is confronted with a crisis involving well-meaning students, a manipulative student activist, a professor who is denied tenure, and trustees who (apart from the right-wing trustee who despises her) are guardedly supportive of the president’s inclusive and understanding management style.

Naomi Roth is president of Webster College, a highly regarded institution that began to evolve a liberal tradition in the 1960s after departing from its former tradition as a party school for underperforming white racist males. As Dean of Women, Naomi gained respect by managing her first crisis: a biological woman who identifieD as a man chose to live in a traditionally all-female housing unit to the dismay of two of its other residents. After nine years as president, a new crisis emerges, one in which a Webster student named Hannah, who happens to be Naomi’s daughter, becomes deeply involved. Also involved is Omar Khayal, a student who was admitted because of his apparent ability to overcome hardships in the Middle East, but who isn’t doing well in most of his courses — apart from the top grades he receives from a professor who is being denied tenure due to lax scholarship and plagiarism.

Naomi is frustrated because the protesting students won’t meet with her and the tenure denial they are protesting is not something Naomi can explain without violating confidentiality rules and exposing Webster to a lawsuit. Much of the novel is devoted to Naomi’s response to the growing protest, an ugly campus incident, her deteriorating relationship with her daughter, and a collateral issue that is affecting her friendship with Webster’s Dean of Admissions.

Naomi is a decent person with strong progressive values, but she’s come up in an academic tradition that has blinded her to certain realities. She’s living a sheltered academic existence and while she is justly proud that Webster is tolerant and diverse and culturally sensitive, she’s not aware of what students are actually thinking. Only near the end of the novel, when a Native American conference that is meant to celebrate the school’s transformation is finally held, does Naomi come to realize that, despite her liberal values, she may be clueless about the lives of people who are not like her.

Or it may be that young people yearn to feel special, and airing unfounded grievances is a way to accomplish that goal. Naomi isn’t sure what to believe, but that’s the quandary we all share, living inside heads that can only hold one mind. And the point of higher education, the novel reminds us, is to make sure that mind is open to new ideas and possibilities. The important thing, one character suggests, is to take the long view, to realize we do what we can to make the world better, and that the world will keep on changing, and hopefully improving, long after we are gone.

I admire the story’s sense of atmosphere, its elegant prose, the careful attention to character. I felt little emotional connection to the plot. Like Naomi, the book is engulfed in its academic setting and perhaps a bit detached from life outside of that narrow prism. The plot is so carefully constructed that it never quite resonates as real. Some conflicts, particularly involving Omar, seem contrived, although other conflicts are more convincing. In the end, however, the storytelling has enough power and grace to earn an easy recommendation.


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