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Week of 30 August 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 1

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Silber looks to maintain University's momentum

Chancellor John Silber, who was president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, was assigned the duties of the presidency on July 9, when Jon Westling, president of BU from 1996 to 2002, resigned from the position, citing his desire to teach and the need for a president who can make a long-term commitment to implement the University's strategic plan. He will take a one-year sabbatical before returning to BU as a professor.

Chancellor John Silber: assuming the duties of president. Photo by Fred Sway


Chancellor John Silber: assuming the duties of president. Photo by Fred Sway


In an interview with B.U. Bridge senior writer/editor Brian Fitzgerald on August 23, Silber noted numerous achievements during both presidencies, including a balanced budget every year since 1972, record levels of gifts, the recruitment of outstanding faculty and students, and the implementation of important building projects. He also discussed new building projects, the problem of grade inflation, the impact of computer technology on colleges, and the federal financial aid picture. In addition, he talked about other pursuits, such as books he is writing - projects that he has put on hold to assume the duties of the president, until the next BU president is chosen.
Long known as a "straight shooter" who doesn't mince words, Silber - widely credited with transforming BU into a world-class educational institution - also discussed Westling's legacy and the University's reputation in the world of higher education.

What are your priorities this year?

To be recognized by the Boston Globe as one of the finest, most sensible and endearing personalities in Boston.

Seriously, my ambition is to maintain the continuity of momentum that Boston University has developed over the last 30 years - to continue the recruitment and retention of outstanding faculty and to continue to place emphasis on teaching and faculty advising of students in a way that develops each student to his fullest capacity.

I also want to continue campus development. This becomes increasingly apparent as one views the present absence of the Commonwealth Armory, as ground is prepared for the construction of the fitness center and the arena, which are part of the Boston University Student Village.

Projects such as the Student Village and to a lesser extent the new law school building have been well-publicized, but we haven't heard
as much about new bioscience and computer science facilities. What is planned in those areas?

Our original plan was to build on air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike. When we were unable to obtain those air rights in a timely fashion, we reconfigured the project to build on the site of the now-closed Nickelodeon [Theatre on Cummington Street]. That, of course, has created other problems, such as the loss of classroom space, so we've been converting the building next to Howard Johnson's to accommodate some of those classrooms that will be lost when the Nickelodeon is demolished.

You're still the chancellor, but you're performing the duties of the president. Why don't you have the title of president?

I've been assigned all the responsibilities of a president, so I'm fulfilling the duties of the office of the president while retaining the title of the chancellor. The reason is that we are interested in developing a national search for the next president, and it will be easier to recruit a new president if there is no one occupying that office by title. Too, it makes it apparent that this arrangement is temporary, and consequently, that we welcome the appointment of a person to assume the title and duties of the president. In the meantime, I will fulfill the duties of the president just as if I carried the title. But it's the symbolism of retaining the title of chancellor that is important.

How does performing the duties of both positions impact your job on a daily basis?

It just makes me work like a son of a gun. It increases my workweek and lengthens my days, so I've now had to put aside many of the writing projects and the sculpture project that I was engaged in.

You've worked to build BU by strengthening its faculty, student body, physical plant, and endowment. What needs to happen in the next few years to make its image match the reality in terms of its reputation in the world of higher learning?

I think the school's reputation follows from all of the factors that you just mentioned, and I think that its reputation is rising with each successive year. But as long as some publications are as irrational in their procedures for ranking institutions as they are, and as long as their procedures are as mindless and noncognitive as they are, it will take some time to have the stature of Boston University recognized and projected accurately. Our faculty bring in, by peer review competition, $270 million a year in grants and contracts. It is hard to believe, then, that the University is not recognized as being substantially ahead of institutions whose faculties' success in these
regards is a small fraction of ours.

Grade inflation is a problem in higher education, especially in Ivy League institutions. What should be done to remedy the situation?

I don't think anything can be done to remedy the situation because of the impossibility of organizing institutions of higher learning to maintain reasonable and comparable standards. Boston University does not suffer from the degree of grade inflation that characterizes Harvard, although there are a few errant professors here who manage to give almost all As, even in very large classes, where something like a grading curve should be observed. But these professors are mercifully few, whereas, according to the published reports on the situation at Harvard, it is a commonplace situation there. At the same time, if Boston University were to go back to the point when a C was the average grade here, our graduates would be penalized by being in competition with students all over the country who are attending universities where A-minus and B-plus are the average grades. We do have programs, such as engineering, management, and the College of General Studies, where a C-plus average is maintained. Our standards in the sciences are quite rigorous. But in programs like The University Professors, in which the combined average SAT score of incoming freshmen is about 1500, it is perfectly reasonable that the grade point average should be well above C.

Do you think that Jon Westling will be remembered as a president who helped the University through a transitional period, or will there
be more to his legacy?

I don't think he will be remembered as a transitional president at all. There was no transition period after he assumed the presidency. Jon Westling will be recognized as a president who continued the advance of Boston University that was begun in 1971. He was chosen because of his intimate knowledge of Boston University and his commitment to the direction in which Boston University was moving - a direction that he had contributed to and supported from the time he joined the president's office as an assistant to the president, through the time when he was provost, and acting president and provost and executive vice president, and finally president. This was a seamless continuation of the advance of Boston University, intellectually, in terms of the quality of faculty and students, and in terms of the advancement of the campus through the construction of new buildings. The Student Village was his conception, and that's something I am very proud of.

And let us remember that while Boston University set records in fundraising while I was president, Jon Westling set new records in each of the six years of his presidency. Our annual level of fundraising from 1996 to the present has increased from approximately $44 million a year to $90.6 million. That is hardly the record of a transitional presidency. That is the record of a highly successful presidency.

Would you care to contrast your experience stepping into the position of authority now with the time when you came here in 1971?

The problems I face at the present time compared to the problems I faced in 1971 are microscopic. Boston University is a very well-run institution. There are superb people directing the various divisions in Boston University. I'm very proud of the quality of our vice presidents, for example, and we have an outstanding cadre of deans. This was certainly not the case when I came to Boston University. When I came here, we didn't have a list of our alumni.

We didn't have a balanced budget. We didn't have a computerized payroll system; every month, mistakes were made in the issuance of payroll checks. All of those systems are now in place. And financially speaking, the University is vastly better off.

When I came here in 1971, on a budget of $71 million, we had a 13 percent deficit of $8.8 million. We had an endowment of $18.8 million. We were raising only about $2.5 million a year. That's in striking contrast to today, when we have an endowment of about $654 million and we're raising $90.6 million a year. Back then, running Boston University was like trying to fly a 747 without avionics, without an instrument panel. Now, those systems are in place; then, we had no such systems.

Today we're in a phase of simply continuing the momentum created by my administration from 1971 to 1996, in which I was assisted substantially by Jon Westling and which continued under his leadership from 1996 until 2002. It's my present intention to continue the development and improvement that has been characteristic of Boston University for the last 31 years.

When you became president in 1971, computer technology was nowhere near as prominent and proficient as it is today. In what ways do you think it has improved the educational experience for students, and in what ways has this had a detrimental effect upon students?

In the sciences, there's no question about the importance of the computer. It has profoundly advanced the quality of the work of researchers. And there are some social sciences in which that's also true. Economics, for example, is making use of computers in some data gathering and data analysis.

John Silber, during a 1971 interview with Bostonia magazine. Photo by Anthony Moscatello

  John Silber, during a 1971 interview with Bostonia magazine. Photo by Anthony Moscatello

Engineering and science have been the greatest beneficiaries by far in the computer revolution. So far as the humanities are concerned, I think it's been nil. So far as the average student is concerned, I think it has contributed greatly to plagiarism and cheating. So far as faculty is concerned, it has increased the burden on each faculty member to ensure the integrity of the work submitted by students. Because accessing materials on the Internet is so easy, it's almost impossible to know whether students have done original work or whether they've cribbed it from some source available on the Internet. I think it also has struck a blow at the computer term paper writing firms, because the students can do it on their own without having to hire some corrupt agent to write their papers for them. Instead, they can become directly corrupt by plagiarizing on their own from the Internet. I think this is a very serious intellectual problem, a very serious pedagogical problem, which we have to deal with by ensuring that the faculty pay much more attention to the quality of the students' work so they can recognize work that is out of character for the student who has submitted it.

That's not to deny that access to the Oxford English Dictionary and to Encyclopaedia Britannica and other resource materials on the Internet is useful to persons in the humanities. But those things are just time-savers that haven't in any way enhanced the complexity of their work or enabled them to comprehend things that were beyond human grasp before. Whereas there are certain problems in astronomy, physics, and mathematics that can be solved by computers, problems that were beyond the capacity of the human mind without the leverage of that marvelous instrument.

You have expressed concern about additional requests for financial aid from cash-strapped parents during tough economic times. How does the federal financial aid picture look at this point?

I don't think federal financial aid has kept up with inflation over the last 25 years. I think it's tragic that the Tuition Advance Fund wasn't enacted by Congress back in 1978 when [Senator Edward] Kennedy and 30 other senators proposed it. Unfortunately, the higher education community was so jealously concerned that this might help the independent sector more than the state sector that opposition to it made its enactment impossible.

By now, under that program, we would have had a national endowment accumulated by repayments from the hundreds of thousands of students who have graduated since 1978, an endowment that would be more than adequate to meet the annual tuition costs of the much smaller number of students who are actually being educated in any single year. These students would have had funds to borrow that would cover a very large percentage of their tuition. In the absence of something like the Tuition Advance Fund, I don't think there's any adequate solution to the problem of financing higher education beyond saving and beyond marvelous good luck in one's investments in the stock market.

Why did BU take in much less than it had expected on its corporate education programs last year?

In corporate education, the shortfall is easily explained by the fact that corporations felt the crunch in terms of their own economic performance. In order to enhance profits and reduce losses, they simply cut out many benefits that they were otherwise happy to provide to their employees as a way of enhancing their professional capacity. And these cutbacks certainly have had their effect on our corporate education programs. We're not immune in certain areas from microeconomic influences or from macropolitic influences. September 11 certainly shocked many foreign parents who had sent their children to America and were concerned that they were so far away. Many of them insisted that their children return home, which is perfectly understandable. In many of the areas of the Middle East where this concern was manifested most intensely, their sons and daughters were probably safer here than they would have been if they'd gone home.

You said that resuming the duties of the president is taking you away from your work on your three books. What is the subject matter of the books?

One of the three books I've been working on is about the obstacles to education reform. I'm putting the final rewrite on a book that was completed by the time I came to Boston University, on Kant's ethics. And I'm about midway through a book on freedom and responsibility - another treatise on philosophy. My sculptural projects have been put on hold.

We heard that you're working on a bas relief carving of Professor Elie Wiesel. When are we going to see it?

It's done. It's been cast and is now at the foundry being reduced to medal size.

So we'll see it this fall?

Yes, I imagine. It is already cast in bronze.

The Boston Globe brought up the possibility that you have mellowed.
Is this just a rumor created by reporters, or are we going to see a mellower John Silber?

We shall see.


30 August 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations