BU Today

Campus Life

President Emeritus John R. Silber Dead at 86

Led University for 25 years

39

John R. Silber (Hon.’95), the president emeritus and former chancellor who led the transformation of Boston University from a commuter school to a renowned research institution, died early this morning, Thursday, September 27, at age 86. The cause of death was kidney failure.

Silber, who came to Boston University in 1971, was the University’s seventh president, and served for more than three decades, as president until 1996, then as University chancellor from 1996 to 2003. He also was a College of Arts & Sciences professor of philosophy and of international relations, a University Professor, and a School of Law professor of law.

Silber was strong-willed, outspoken, and often controversial, and his resolute work ethic, formidable capacity for knowledge, and dogged determination to improve both BU and the city of Boston made him well known in academic as well as political circles. During his tenure at BU—which coincided, for a time, with his unsuccessful 1990 run for governor of Massachusetts—he greatly expanded the campus, recruited top-notch faculty, including two future Nobel Prize winners, and established the University’s long-running partnership with the Chelsea Public School system, which began in 1988 and continued for 20 years. The University he served for so long awarded him an honorary degree at the 1995 Commencement.

“In the seven years I have served this wonderful institution, I have come to appreciate the magnitude of what John Silber accomplished at Boston University,” says University President Robert A. Brown. “He worked tirelessly to transform the University, introducing ever higher standards in the hiring and promotion of faculty and admission of students. There were some who found fault with his candor, and those who disagreed with him on some policy or decision, but nobody can deny John’s legacy. He was famously outspoken and unhesitant in decision-making. He left an indelible imprint on Boston University and set the foundation for the course to greatness that we are steering today. We owe John a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

While his tendency toward blunt speech earned him moments of local and national attention, most memorably during his gubernatorial campaign, his friends and supporters praised him for choosing truth over tact. “I called him the last candid man,” author Tom Wolfe (Hon.’00) said. “There aren’t many left who say what they mean, and mean what they say.”

John R. Silber, Boston University President emeritus and chancellor

Silber was born in San Antonio, Tex., to Jewell Silber, a schoolteacher, and Paul Silber, an architect who immigrated to the United States from Berlin in 1902. He described his parents as “strict but loving” people who “gave no excuses.” In 1989, he told the Boston Globe about his realization at age four that his right arm, shortened by a congenital birth defect, would never grow. “My mother always fixed my sleeves so I would have use of my arm,” he said. “She never hid it. Neither have I. By not pampering me, they let me develop into the person that I am.”

He attended Trinity University in San Antonio, where he met his wife, Kathryn (Hon.’01), and graduated with a degree in philosophy. He earned a master’s degree in 1952 and a doctorate in 1956 from Yale, both in philosophy, then returned to his home state to teach philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He was named chair of the philosophy department in 1962, and the dean of UT’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1967, but a clash with the chairman of the university’s board of regents over a plan to split the college into smaller schools led to his dismissal in July 1970. His principled stand, however, won the attention of the BU presidential search committee, then entering the ninth month of looking for a new leader.

When Silber arrived the following year, the school bore little resemblance to the BU of today. The campus had only 66 education and research buildings and 42 residence halls, the library had less than a million books, and most critically, the University was operating at a budget deficit of $8.8 million.

“When I came here, we didn’t have a list of our alumni,” Silber told the University’s weekly newspaper, the BU Bridge, in 2002. “We didn’t have a balanced budget. We didn’t have a computerized payroll system. We were raising only about $2.5 million a year. Back then, running Boston University was like trying to fly a 747 without avionics, without an instrument panel.”

Silber took an ambitious tack, balancing the University’s budget in 18 months, and then launching an aggressive campaign to hire new faculty, first in the humanities and social sciences, then in the life sciences. Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, was recruited in 1976, and Derek Walcott (Hon.’93), a College of Arts & Sciences professor emeritus of creative writing, in 1982—both went on to win Nobel Prizes, Wiesel’s in peace, and Walcott’s in literature. At Silber’s behest, two other Nobel laureates joined the faculty, the late Saul Bellow (Hon.’04), a University Professor and a CAS professor, in 1993, and Sheldon Glashow, the Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and Science, in 2000.

Over the next 25 years, BU experienced a period of unprecedented growth and engagement with the city of Boston. New programs and institutes served a range of constituencies—with the founding of the Prison Education Program in 1972, Metropolitan College offered courses for prisoners in state correctional facilities, while the University Professors Program allowed advanced undergraduates to plan their own curricula. The physical plant improved dramatically as well, doubling in size with the addition of facilities such as the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering, in 1983, the Rafik B. Hariri Building for the School of Management, in 1996, and the Boston University Photonics Center, which opened in 1997.

John R. Silber and Family

The Silber family, 1971.

Under Silber’s leadership, BU also forged deeper ties with the community, most notably by taking the unprecedented step of managing a failing Boston-area school system. The Boston University/Chelsea Partnership, established in 1988, brought new facilities, curriculum changes, and new policies for students, teachers, and administrators into a troubled system, with the goal of making Chelsea’s school’s “a model for excellence in urban education.” The partnership, which provided the district with tutoring programs, early-childhood education, scholarships, and enrichment programs, was intended to last for a decade; it ended in 2008 after two. Silber also created the Boston Scholars Program in 1973–the largest such scholarship program in the country. In 1993, he founded the Boston University Academy, a college preparatory school for secondary school students.

Silber served on the Kissinger Commission (the President’s National Bipartisan Commission on Central America), and was chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, which during his tenure developed the first curriculum frameworks.

Despite his success in raising the University’s profile, Silber’s direct, unguarded critiques of students and faculty made him an unpopular figure in some circles at points in his career. In 1976, unhappy with what Time magazine called his “overpowering style in office” and a proposed budget cut that could include faculty positions, 10 deans and three-quarters of the Faculty Assembly called for his resignation—a move that the Board of Trustees voted down.

His presidency was never again at stake, but Silber continued to draw public scrutiny over the years. He took a leave of absence from BU to run for governor of Massachusetts in 1990, and secured the Democratic nomination. His campaign was initially a success, but he failed to win over the old guard of the Democratic party, and ultimately lost to William Weld. After his return to the University, in 1993, the Massachusetts Attorney General investigated the finances of BU, and the University was asked to adjust its governance rules. In 1996, when he stepped down as president, he was named chancellor, maintaining an office on Bay State Road and continuing to live in BU-owned housing. In 2003, he was widely criticized for his role in selecting Daniel Goldin, a former administrator at NASA, as BU’s ninth president—and then dismissing him with a $1.3 million payout before Goldin took office.

Silber’s role at BU diminished over the next few years, as Aram Chobanian (Hon.’06), the former provost of the Medical Campus and School of Medicine dean, served as president ad interim, then president, until Robert A. Brown, the former provost of MIT, was appointed the 10th president of Boston University in 2005. Silber continued to live on the BU campus, but turned his attention to other interests, such as sculpture (he completed a bas-relief of Wiesel), and architecture. He published a well-reviewed critique of modernist architecture in 2008, taking special exception to the work of Frank Gehry, titled Architecture of the Absurd. In December 2011, he finished a critical analysis of the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a project he began in 1954 when he was a graduate student and member of the junior faculty at Yale. The book, Kant’s Ethics: The Good, Freedom, and the Will (Walter de Gruyter, 2012), was published in May.

John R. Silber, Boston University President emeritus and chancellor

In 2007, the University honored Silber with a gala tribute, featuring letters and presentations from colleagues, dignitaries, and friends. While many friends poked fun at the former president’s notorious frankness and occasional temper, others talked of his lesser-known kindness: letters and phone calls that came at times of illness or trouble, his habit of eating breakfast and dinner with his children every day, even at the most demanding moments of his career, and his long and loving relationship with his wife, Kathryn, who died in 2005.

“What I am most grateful for was the honor and privilege of serving for more than 30 years,” Silber said at the end of the evening. “BU was one of the finest toys I was ever allowed to play with—a great toy with enormous potential, if you polished it up and gave it a few tools to make it run.”

Silber is survived by six daughters, Rachel Devlin and Martha Hathaway, of Newton, Mass., Judith Ballan, of New York City, Alexandra Silber, of Carlsbad, Calif., Ruth Belmonte, of State College, Pa., and Caroline Lavender, of Atlanta, Ga., a son, Charles Hiett, of Hot Springs, Ark., 26 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Paul and Phyllis Silber, of San Antonio, Tex., two nieces, and a great-niece and a great-nephew.

Funeral services will be private. A memorial service will take place in the near future. BU Today will provide details when they become available.

39 Comments

39 Comments on President Emeritus John R. Silber Dead at 86

  • Bob Smith on 09.27.2012 at 11:52 am

    One of my few true heroes has breathed his last…..brilliant; generous; hard working; straight shooting…a man’s man if there ever was one…I learned so much from him in our time together.

    They just don’t make them like this anymore

  • Bob Tonucci on 09.27.2012 at 12:09 pm

    I attended B.U. from 1980-82, and I remember Dr. Silber took the time to address the freshmen — he addressed the topic of suicide, and relayed an anecdote in which a student had killed himself, and the student’s prominent father was chiefly concerned about embarrassment to his own reputation. The message was clear, and I never forgot it. Dr. Silber’s spirit loomed large over the campus during that time, in a positive way, especially with regard to protection of free speech. R.I.P.

  • Jeanette on 09.27.2012 at 12:22 pm

    Rest in peace! I was a student there when he was president. So sad to hear.

  • Janet Van Deren CLA 88 on 09.27.2012 at 1:15 pm

    I always had tremendous respect for Dr. Silber. Many of my classmates complained about him–I had several opportunities to speak with him and always found him to be incisive and brilliant–but he also listened. I have seen posters on the BU Alumi Association FB page posting some really ugly comments abour Dr. Silber–how sad that they don’t recognize what he did for BU–and how that affected the value of their diplomas. Rest in Peace, Dr. Silber–this alumna will always remember you and honor the memory.

  • Chris S on 09.27.2012 at 1:41 pm

    Fascinating guy and career. His personal philosophy and tenure at BU is a keystone to the schools rise and the changes in the competing polls of American political ideology.

  • Bob Feldman on 09.27.2012 at 1:53 pm

    John Silber was a great man and the best boss that many of us who worked for and with him ever had. I was his VP/Development for a decade and worked closely with him to create and manage the first successful major fundraising campaign in Boston University’s history up to that time. He was at the same time contentious and thoroughly supportive. What he asked for was our best, and he always gave the best of what he had to offer which was spectacular. My children miss him, and so do I.

  • Michael Maso on 09.27.2012 at 2:30 pm

    I hope that you will also recognize Dr. Silber’s critical in the founding of the Huntington Theatre Company, which would not have come into being without his personal determination that the City of Boston have a world-class resident theatre. When asked why he would invest the University’s resources in what might be perceived as a risky proposition, he said “if Boston University can support a football team, it can damn well support a theatre company!”

    Thirty years later the Huntington is an independent organization, but our strategic partnership with and support from BU continues to this day. Over three and a half million people have seen 180 productions since the Huntington’s founding in 1982, and 450,000 young people have been served by our education and community programs. The Calderwood Pavilion, which the Huntington built and opened in 2004, would not have existed if the Huntington had not been founded by BU 22 years earlier, and a proud John Silber was with us at its dedication.

    I last saw John about a year ago, when he attended our production of Candide. which he greatly admired. I look forward to finding a way to honor him and his role in the founding of the Huntington in the coming weeks, and take great pleasure in knowing that the service to BU and to Greater Boston that he envisioned for us over 30 years ago continues to this day.

    Michael Maso
    Managing Director
    Huntington Theatre Company

  • Sophia Zouras on 09.27.2012 at 2:39 pm

    I am honored to say that I started my academic and business career in learning communications and building lasting business and community relationships with the examples of John Silber and the BU family when I was just a freshman and work study student in 1986 at BU interacting with then President Silber and with VP Robert Feldman as well in the team in alumni relations and development. I am honored to have had the opportunity to have an example of a great American leader who contributed so much for all of us. In later years, I saw him at various alumni functions and he was always so kind and refreshingly constructive about building for today and tomorrow. He will be greatly missed. My sincere sympathy to the Silber family and to the greater BU community at-large. Today I will surely toast to him in Philadelphia with our BU friends.

  • Ray Pizarro on 09.27.2012 at 3:05 pm

    I graduated from B.U. in 1978. Always proud to have been there and deeply recognizing the greatness of our beloved university. I always regarded John Silber as someone who prided himself in imparted in others the desire to achieve our intellectual best, to be humane in the pursuit of our goals and achievements, and grateful in reaching our aspirations. My sympathies to his family for their loss and to the B.U. community in general.

  • Bill Keylor on 09.27.2012 at 4:57 pm

    As chair of the department of history for twelve years during his presidency, and then as acting chair of the department of international relations, I tangled with him over academic and personnel issues. But I always held him in high esteem and respected him for his unswerving commitment to excellence in higher education and his passionate belief in a liberal education as the foundation of knowledge, critical thinking, and good citizenship.

  • John Ruda on 09.27.2012 at 7:34 pm

    Dr. Silber is the reason I went to BU. After knowing him only by name through my participation in a MA Board of Education program in high school, he advocated for my acceptance into a very small admission program for students to attend college in lieu of their senior year of high school. I credit him for many things I’ve achieved. He may have been controversial, but he was also a great advocate for students who showed ambition.

  • Echol Nix, Jr. on 09.27.2012 at 10:28 pm

    He was both tough and tender. I value the many letters(that fill boxes)exchanged over the years, including the last one a few days ago. As always, he gave solid advice about teaching and writing, as well as insights regarding family and finances. He was unquestionably “one of the great ones” of our time.

  • Alan Alberts on 09.27.2012 at 11:11 pm

    I can remember my first glimpse of John Silber, descending the staircase in the Castle on Bay State Road at the Trustee Scholar welcoming reception in 1978. He spoke to the students and our parents about excellence and emphasized the important role our families played in our successes in high school, and the need to continue to strive for excellence at BU and beyond. He wasn’t always gentle, but he was usually right!

  • Sridhar Prasad on 09.27.2012 at 11:42 pm

    A giant and great friend of my university has died. I am deeply saddened. His life will continue to be an inspiration for me.

  • John Moscatel on 09.28.2012 at 4:20 am

    Dr. Silber’s resume speaks for itself. However, under that formal, and sometimes serious exterior was a genuine humanity and friendship that touched the entire Moscatel family. Mainly through his close friendship with Tony Moscatel, then director of the B.U Photo Dept.he extended that friendship and relationship to the entire family. He delivered the eulogy at our father’s mass 10 years ago and continued his advice and counsel to me 2 years ago when we discussed my nephew’s matriculation into the University. Under the stern, sometimes combative exterior beat the heart of a wonderful true philosopher. He will be greatly missed, as we now approach the graduation of our 6th family member.

  • MIchael Zank on 09.28.2012 at 8:30 am

    I first became aware of John Silber when I was a student of theology in Heidelberg/Germany, in a philosophical seminar on Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, where the instructor had put Dr. Silber’s introduction and translation of the work into English on a very short list of selected secondary readings. — About twelve years later I came to BU as a part-time lecturer in Jewish studies. I didn’t meet Dr. Silber then, but he knew of me as a student and protege of Prof. Marvin Fox, hired by Silber to put Jewish studies on a solid foundation at BU. When I had an offer from Bristol (England), Dr. Silber-at the behest of then Religion department chair Ray Hart-created a tenure track position for me to keep me at BU where I’ve been teaching ever since. My office is in Silber’s old building, now the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies. The last time I saw Dr. Silber was about a year ago, when he introduced his friend Elie Wiesel to a packed Metcalf Hall. He was pale and seemed frail until he began to speak in his familiar voice, which remained strong. — Silber stepped on many toes but some of the intimidation one could feel among the faculty when he was still in charge was simply a matter of timidity. There were exceptions, among them the imperturbable Bob Cohen (Philosophy). There’s no doubt that Silber did great things for BU. On the other hand, the university became a better, more open and equitable workplace after he left. Still, his merits remain undiminished and I, for one, am grateful to this edgy Kantian who made the university a top-notch institution, not by using business models but by the sheer power of personality.

  • Linda Lombari on 09.28.2012 at 8:51 am

    I want to take this opportunity to extend a public thank you to Dr. Silber for the difference he made in my life. After my sophomore year at Boston University I found myself without sufficient financial aid to continue my education here. One evening, after attending an event where Dr. Silber was speaking about the future of education, I stopped him on the street to discuss my plight. I explained that I came from a home of modest means; with an older sister already attending Case Western, one working parent, and three other siblings still living at home my parents couldn’t afford to contribute more to my BU education. That night I saw a side of Dr. Silber that most people never knew. He was compassionate and consoled me. He told me to send him a “personal & confidential” letter explaining my situation and he would “see what he could do”. He didn’t want to see someone who really wanted to have a BU education turned away. Well, he made magic happen with the Financial Aid office as well as Housing (it was beyond the room selection period).

    Today I am a proud Boston University alum and just celebrated my 25th year of service as IS&T staff. I have Dr. Silber to thank and will always be in his debt.

    My sincere condolences to Dr. Silber’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.

  • Amir Rashid on 09.28.2012 at 9:07 am

    I was in a post graduate program at Boston University when Dr. Silber was the president. May his soul rest in peace. My deepest sympathies to the family and friends.

  • Reggie Jean on 09.28.2012 at 9:51 am

    Its difficult to think of one individual who has done more for the University. Rest in Peace John Silber.

  • Francis Govia on 09.28.2012 at 9:58 am

    As a student, I used to see Silber on his way to the office before 7 a.m. At that time, the School of Management was still a hole in the earth, and he would stop and look thoughtfully at the site. I was in IR, which is located on Silber Way. To say he was a great man is an understatement in my view. The memory of seeing him then, and knowing all he did for Boston University, bring tears to my eyes.

  • Bruce J. on 09.28.2012 at 10:40 am

    A great president, but not a “nice man.” BU is his legacy. I’m thankful he didn’t become governor.

  • Frank - Class of '93 on 09.28.2012 at 11:03 am

    I have a similar memory to one conveyed in a recent post. I was walking out of my dorm on Bay State Road (the Italian House), and President Silber was walking by at the same time. I distinctly remember his greeting me with a huge smile. This happened 20 years ago, mind you. Under his tough veneer was a genuine person.

    I also had the opportunity to sit at his table during a dinner for student club leaders. He engaged in debate with me, which kind of made me lose my appetite, but when the dinner was over, he was extremely cordial to me and respected the fact that I was not intimidated. While none of us were fans of the housing rules he implemented, no one could argue with his extraordinary leadership and the stature and reputation that BU has risen to because of him.

  • Danièle Schéré on 09.28.2012 at 11:11 am

    The University Professor’s Program is another of Dr. Silber’s brilliant brainchildren, well worth mentioning in the list of his accomplishments. As a graduate of that Program, I am for ever indebted to him, and saddened by the death of a man of this caliber. They’re a dying breed.

  • richard vendetti on 09.28.2012 at 1:45 pm

    dr. Silber, was a great man , an educator, leader, family man and good friend of the hard working men and women, of buildings and ground at boston university. We will dearly miss his smile , that look, he would give you that would keep you questing, but most of all his friendship. One of the things I admired about him was his toughness,his love of the university and his love of the students, even though they didn’t realize it till they got into the real world. We will all miss you.

  • Kevin Kit Parker on 09.28.2012 at 2:50 pm

    I attended Boston University from 1984-89, hailing from a small town in the South. Living on Bay State Road, I often encountered President Silber walking back and forth to his office. He always was cheerful and stopped to chat. Over time, his public lectures became an important part of my educational experience at BU, and I grew fond of his tough love approach, similar to the same cadences I had listened to in church growing up.
    Later, after I graduated, I read his book, “Straight Shooting” and shared it with my thesis advisor at Vanderbilt. His run for governor, the BU effort in Chelsea, and his subsequent work for the Commonwealth were all sources of pride.
    In 2002, I found myself serving in southern Afghanistan with the US Army and I had an Afghan interpreter who aspired to be a journalist. Recalling the BU-run Afghan Media Project, I inquired on a BU website about the status of the program. The response was a kind letter from President Silber himself, describing the project and with a list of names of BU faculty to ask for help. He went on to thank me for my service and to wish me well. It was a kind letter and especially uplifting, to both me and the other BU alumni serving in Kandahar at the time. I recall thinking that if I had known President Silber might read my letter, I would have spell checked it closer.
    Some years ago, when Mrs. Silber and his close friend Saul Bellow died in short order, I wrote a letter of encouragement to President Silber. I explained the value of his letter to me, updated him on my military service and my new job as a professor at Harvard in hopes that he might find some joy in a BU alum’s accomplishments. He did and said as much in his response letter. In my letter, I had told him of how surprised I was that he had personally responded to my inquiry about the Afghan Media Project….his response in this final letter was that he responded to all that wrote to him “..unless they were quite obviously insane.” The letter remains my most cherished academic correspondance.
    Although I never had him as a classroom teacher, President Silber (as I always called him and do to this day) was a living lesson to me in the standards of excellence, integrity, and civility. Tough, undoubtedly, but a man who truly cared for the young and the poor and who held himself to the highest of standards. I am saddened by his passing but grateful for his having lived and touched my life.

    Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D.
    ENG ’89
    Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics
    Harvard University

  • michael creech on 09.28.2012 at 3:02 pm

    Great Leader. He will be missed.

    Michael Creech MET 2008

  • mark cannon on 09.28.2012 at 3:15 pm

    Have been so proud and happy to witness how much Dr. Brown has
    been able to build on the Silber foundation! God Bless Dr. Silber…
    SMG’79, MED’84

  • Dan Roth on 09.28.2012 at 4:18 pm

    I was enroute to an interview for journalism masters’ program in 1980 when he stepped into an elevator. He had been on the hot seat, on campus, on 60 Minutes, criticized in the national media…but I admired his commitment to promoting a liberal arts curriculum (which was being stretched and attacked from all corners then). Hold fast to a strict required course list, I said. By the time the conversation ended, I was 15 minutes late for the interview. He walked me into the office, told the staff to “admit this fellow,” shook my hand and said he hoped to see me again on campus. I was admitted, but went to a competitor in Evanston instead. His methods may have been crude at times and he could be brusque, but inretrospect, he was fighting to save the core of college education and succeeded.

  • Jonathan Krivine, CAS '72 on 09.28.2012 at 4:46 pm

    I knew Dr. Silber. And the bottom line, like him or hate him, is that he was the embodiment of intellectual integrity and consistency. I liked him, though he didn’t make it easy. In an era when university presidents are hardly more than erudite schmoozers at cocktail parties, Dr Silber had principles and fearlessly asserted those principles whatever the consequence. His biggest mistake was that he had a fabulous sense of humor but rarely, if ever, used it to disarm his critics. In the final analysis, what I valued most about Dr. Silber was that at his core, he was a subversive, whether in rattling the smug higher education establishment by fighting unionization or challenging theories of how to teach the impoverished, he lived for stirring the pot. My deepest condolences to his family.

  • Vijay Kanabar on 09.28.2012 at 6:59 pm

    Good sense of humor. For example, new faculty were asked to go for a reception to the Presidents house….he gave the directions and then made it clear to us that if we got run over by the Green Line tram….he made a mistake in hiring us.

  • David Glick on 09.28.2012 at 7:40 pm

    A very rare breed, truth over tact, I always loved attending his lectures and reading his books. A true educator and leader.

  • Diane Chau MD '91 CAS on 09.28.2012 at 10:56 pm

    I am forever grateful to have been at BU during his amazing leadership. R.I.P.

  • Mary Buletza SMG'80 on 09.29.2012 at 11:00 am

    Thank you, Dr. Silber, for all you have done for BU. May you rest in peace.
    Deepest sympathy to the Silber Family.

  • Class of 1991 Alum on 09.29.2012 at 11:21 am

    A couple of things. The fact that the BU Today, the official press organ of BU feels comfortable detailing Dr. Silber’s flaws, albeit in a sanitized and not in an over detailed way, now that Dr. Silber is dead, just gives you a glimpse of the man. Said another way: BU Today can now talk about the man, somewhat honestly now that he is dead, because you would not dare publish such comments when he was alive. That gives you a glimpse into the man. My comments will be critical and I will be respectful. I am glad BU Today published Dr. Silber’s comments where he regarded BU: “as one of the finest toys I was allowed to play with…” Hence the problem, maybe Dr. Silber thought that BU was “his toy” and in being “his personal property” he probably felt no accountability to anyone. Silber as commented in other forums presided over a series of legal and media circuses such as the loss of a number of First Amendment cases, and incidents in which he appeared to be “self dealing and shady”. In most institutions, the president serves at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees, but somehow, at the BU the food chain was reversed. It appeared that the BoT served at the pleasure of the president. Either way, it was only in 2003-04, when “grown ups” like Alan Leventhal (Chairman of BU’s BoT) realized after the Goldin hiring debacle that Dr. Silber had become over-bearing and was a little long in the tooth, that the modernization of BU’s governance began and Drs. Chobian and Brown were hired as president in succession. Both were/are very capable people who managed to govern BU without all the unnecessary baggage that Dr. Silber both brought and carried with him in his role of BU’s Chief Executive Officer. Dr. Silber for all his intellect, seemed to lack the ability to modulate opinions that should be shared in private with those that should be uttered in public, and his patented sneering of students, is the proximate cause of the low alumni giving rate. For a man that was as “commercial” as Silber; he just did not get it — you do not insult your future donor base. That was just patently a stupid thing to do. (I doubt that these comments will get published, but it is worth a try).

  • Matthew Smith on 10.01.2012 at 4:59 pm

    If ever one person has made a difference certainly John Silber left a legacy at BU that has permitted the university to become a worldwide leader in teaching and research. Painful at times…Yes, most certainly, but then what great enterprise has not had to endure periods of difficulty as it finds its way. I attended BU from 1966 – 1972 experiencing in my last year the beginning of the Silber Era. From a good solid school it has grown to one of distinction and in which all who have been and are associated with it as alumni, faculty and staff can be proud. Boston University stands for good things and strives to be better. John Silber made that possible by forcing us to address what this institution should be and making us defend our positions (especially those that were contrary to his actions of what it took to get BU to a better place). Love him or hate him we can certainly all be proud in what he left us… a distinctly better BU!

  • Cheyney Ryan on 10.01.2012 at 6:51 pm

    I am currently a fellow at Oxford University, where I specialize in public international law. I have spent my career teaching both philosophy and law, at Harvard and Northwestern as well as the University of Oregon, where I was for many years. All of this after getting a PhD in philosophy from Boston University.

    I hope my comments are published along with these others, since my opinion of Silber could not be more different. I had no respect for John Silber, based on my dealings with him at BU. I found him to be an intellectual bully who had no respect for the opinions of others or the standards of academic culture essential to its flourishing. He hired people because they were his friends (Bill Bennett), fired or harassed people because they disagreed with his politics (Howard Zinn); all of which evidenced the height of unprofessionalism. He was not well regarded in the field of philosophy because he was not a scholar but a polemicist. After hiring some good people when he first came to BU (Alasdair MacIntyre and Tom McCarthy, especially), he then drove them all away with his autocratic manner. I am not sure the philosophy dept has ever recovered from this. The current president seems like a competent, principled person; Silber was none of these.

  • Silber made me sad. on 10.02.2012 at 11:24 am

    John Silber always made me sad. He was a smarter-than-average man who used his intellect as a battering ram. He wanted so badly to be accepted and never was, so he tried building his own exclusive club wherein the power of rejection lay solely with him. He wasn’t as brilliant as he thought, he wasn’t as much of a humanist as he hoped, and he leaves behind a university still divided by his legacy. (Don’t believe me? Look at the address used by the Development folks and realize the trouble calling it “Silber Way” would cause for the donors they’re soliciting.)

    It is my sincere hope that John Silber is now somewhere that he can feel accepted, that all of the emotional pain he endured (and subsequently caused to others, in the chain of bullying) has fallen away. I also hope that BU manages to start healing from the scars he left.

  • Cheyney Ryan on 10.02.2012 at 2:34 pm

    Let me add this to my previous post:

    The article here on Silber’s tenure at president does not encourage me about BU’s ability to move beyond the Silber era. Silber celebrated his own “candor”, and explained people’s reactions to his offensiveness by saying that they didn’t like his “blunt talk”. In truth, he wove fantasies around himself, and surrounded himself with people that shared them.

    A case in point is this article. For example, it explains his Mass governor election loss by saying “… he failed to win over the old guard of the Democratic party, and ultimately lost to William Weld.” Everyone knows that Silber’s offensive personality lost him the election, as demonstrated in his election eve blow-up against a popular newswoman on Boston television. This was not “old guard” vs. “new guard”–the rejection of Silber was across the board because he came across as flatly unstable.

    Perhaps BU today could commission another piece on him, that gave a truthful account of his presidency.

  • Joel krakow CLA '73" on 10.03.2012 at 6:44 pm

    The transformation of BU was the vision of President Case and was already under way when Silber arrived in 1971. West Campus and Warren Towers had already been built. BU was no longer a “commuter school” in the traditional meaning of that term by end of the 1960s. To describe BU as a “commuter school ” in 1971 is both inaccurate and misleading. BU had thousands of out-of-state students at that point in time. There wasn’t yet enough on-campus housing for everyone, so many students lived off campus in Allston, Brighton, Brookline, Cambridge, Back Bay, etc, and “commuted” to school. For Thanksgiving they went home to MA, New York, Ct., New Jersey, and places far and wide. But they weren’t commuting from home. UMass Boston was a true “commuter school” in 1971, but BU wasn’t.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)