The Plight of the (Fictional) Liberal College President

The Devil and Webster depicts feminist campus leader struggling to deal with escalating student protest over tenure denial she knows (but can’t explain in public) was justified.

March 30, 2017
 

Naomi Roth never set out to be a college president. A gender studies scholar at (fictional) Webster College, she finds herself placed on the search committee for a new president when she is drafted to successfully handle a campus controversy.

Roth is the central figure in The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who has skewered academe before. She wrote Admission, which was turned into a film starring Tina Fey (with considerable change from the novel). And the world of elite college admissions -- Webster is a New England liberal arts college in the Amherst and Williams tradition -- continues to play a role in her work. Roth must steel herself when admissions decisions go out to deal with disappointed parents who have connections to the college.

As the story opens, one of the students in a women’s residence hall announces his transgender status and identification as a man. Other women in the dormitory protest. “This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space,” complains one. As the controversy becomes a national media sensation, Roth handles the press attention (and the transgender student opts to leave). Other search committee members see Roth’s potential as an administrator, and she embraces the job. Still, her secretary -- inherited from her predecessor -- is able with a glance to shame her over not dressing or acting appropriately presidential.

The trouble for Roth begins when she notices students starting to camp out in the center of campus in a protest. Proud of the college's progressive ideals and actions, Roth wonders what students could possibly be protesting. "The college burned clean fuel and recycled every substance known to man, and Webster Food Services had even weeded out factory-farmed animals and genetically modified produce. What was getting them sufficiently worked up to forswear their beds and showers and sleep out?"

As a veteran of campus protests herself, Roth assumes she'll be sympathetic and is stunned that the students haven't come to see her to discuss what's on their minds -- so she seeks them out (including her daughter, a student and one of the protesters). She finds the issue upsetting the students is the denial of tenure to an anthropology professor popular with students, who note that he is a "professor of color." Roth tries hard to understand the students' motives, especially those of Omar Khayal, the Palestinian student who is the leader of the protest.

Roth knows why the professor was denied tenure. His skimpy publishing record is marred by plagiarism issues. And his popularity with students appears in part related to his ease in grading, as suggested by one student review: "Professor Gall is a smooth dude. I totes played World of Warcraft all semester and I still passed the final."

As president, Roth feels she can't reveal anything about Gall to protesting students or inquiring reporters, but she is convinced that the college did the right thing in denying tenure.

Indeed, the book constantly portrays the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place reality of the life of a college president. Another student grievance is that Webster has canceled its study abroad options in Kenya and Vietnam. Roth actually wanted more students to go to those countries (over the oversubscribed Florence option) but only a handful chose those countries over several years, and one student came home with malaria, forcing Roth to deal with a potential lawsuit as a result. Students protesting don't much care about those details.

Via email, Korelitz responded to some questions about the novel.

Q: What prompted you to move from admissions to the college presidency as your point of perspective for the novel?

A: I didn’t really consider it a move. For me, a novel is first and foremost about the story. In this case the story was about a confrontation between a woman who considers herself ideologically in line with her own younger self and an enigmatic student who appears to see her very differently, and who forces her to rethink who she is and what she actually believes. What happens when radicals grow up and actually occupy positions of power? That was the question the novel began to coalesce around. The admissions elements began to creep in as I wrote the novel -- I guess I haven’t outgrown my own fascination with the process. (But neither has anyone else, so that’s OK!)

Q: Do you think a Naomi Roth could rise through the ranks in academe today?

A: I don’t see why not. Her academic credentials are solid. She’s a well-liked teacher in the classroom and she strives to get along with everyone -- fellow faculty, administration, alumnae, students. She also has real affection for her adopted institution, Webster College. I was a faculty spouse at Princeton when Shirley Tilghman went from popular (and deeply respected) professor to member of the presidential search committee to president of the university. That seemed to go very smoothly, and she was a marvelous president.

Q: Did any particular protests inspire you?

A: My essential feeling is this: colleges are right to invite controversial speakers to campus, and members of the community are also right to peacefully protest, if that’s what they want to do. An even better idea, though, would be to actually attend these events, listen to opposing viewpoints and vigorously challenge them. Education should not be about having one’s positions unchallenged, or -- even worse -- never allowing other opinions to be aired in the first place. One of the reasons I have enjoyed living in academic communities and writing about academic communities is that I think of them as places where ideas come to meet one another. This is a good thing.

Q: A reader might think you have a cynical perspective on campus protests, given the facts that are clear to the reader of your novel (but not the fictional students). Do you think the Webster Dissent (as the student protest is called) is typical of the current state of campus protest?

A: I’m a little cynical about everything, not just the student protesters in The Devil and Webster. Another effect of living in proximity to a university (Princeton, where my husband has taught since 1987) is that however much things may be changing, they also remain the same. The students are eternally lovely, interesting, talented, curious … also ridiculous, adolescent, insufferable and petty. The trigger issues may change, but college students are also engaged in the process of growing up, leaving home and separating from Mom and Dad. How much of student protest comes from those utterly banal impulses, rather than heartfelt advocacy of a political cause? It’s not a put-down, just an observation. We were exactly the same when we were in college!

Q: If this novel becomes a film, who would you recommend to play Naomi?

A: Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve been asked or even thought about this question. Still, it took me a mere nanosecond to come up with the answer: Maggie Gyllenhaal. But nobody will care about my recommendation. They never ask the writer!

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