Former Boston University president dies at 86

File photo.
File photo.

John Silber, president and then-chancellor of Boston University from 1977 to 2003, passed away at the age of 86 due to kidney failure in his Brookline home on Sept. 27.

Known as America’s highest paid educator with a salary of $815,222, doubling that of the then-president of Harvard University, Silber became nationally recognized as the man who led Boston University for 25 years, bringing about change to a faltering university that was being left in the shadows by neighboring institutes Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A philosophy graduate with high honors from Trinity University, Silber would carry on to enrolling in Yale Divinity School for a year, studying law at the University of Texas in Austin before returning to his original roots in philosophy with both a master’s and doctorate degree from Yale in 1952 and 1956, respectively.

Following his education Silber remained in the academic field as he spent time teaching at Yale and Bonn University in Germany with a Fulbright scholarship. He returned to Austin as a full professor, department head and eventually the dean of Austin College of Arts and Sciences.

Yet by 1970, his liberal politics and executive aspirations had brought him into conflict with the chairman of the Board of Regents, Frank C. Erwin Jr. Silber was dismissed as dean and began looking for a new job, according to the New York Times.

Founded as a Methodist university in 1839, the position of presidency was not one that was deeply-coveted and the New York Times reported that in his interview he “called the campus ugly, bemoaned a faculty laden with deadwood” and said “the university might be dying”. Yet his ideas convinced the board of trustees to hire him, marking the beginning of a new fresh era for the university.

“Dr. Silber will pick us up and throw us, and I’m afraid we need to be picked up and thrown,” ” one member of the presidential search committee said, according to the Boston Globe.

Known as a tyrant and bully, and labeled as “the meanest SOB on campus” by Nora Ephrom, Silber naturally presented his dynamic personality that included explicit hard-hitting words.

Among his many outbursts included calling the English department ‘a damn matriarchy’ due to a quarter of their tenured faculty being female.

Moreover he emerged as leading figure in the stand against faculty unionization as the Wall Street Journal reported that he believed that “faculty at universities have too many ‘managerial’ duties to be considered ‘labor.’”

In a tribute to Silber, the Wall Street Journal cited Peter Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, that Silber “looked upon academic administration not as a task for managers but as an intellectual calling — not quite scholarship but something like a fierce allegiance to excellence of the mind.”

His aggressive behavior even led to “10 deans and three-quarters of the faculty assembly in 1976 who called for his resignation because they were unhappy with his autocratic style,” according to the Washington Post.

Nevertheless Silber did not see himself governing with an autocratic fist as he told the Boston Globe in 1980 that “I’m a model of civility.”

William Bennett US Secretary of Education under Reagan took to his mentor’s side arguing that, “Silber is frank and manly and direct.

There isn’t enough of that these days. He believes human beings should be spoken to as if they were human beings, not as if they were flowers.”

Stepping down in 1996, Silber believed that his greatest contribution “has been to declare that there is one university in the country with no interest in intellectual fads, in following propaganda and ideology.”

Throughout his presidency, “BU’s endowment went from $18.8 million to $430 million and its physical plant more than doubled,” according to the Boston Globe. Moreover, “he raised tuition to Ivy League levels and tightened admission standards, but enrollment nevertheless climbed to 30,000 from 20,000.

He also financed $700 million in new construction and tripled the university’s property holdings, according to the New York Times.

In 1990, Silber took leave and became involved within the political arena where he campaigned for governor, creating an upset victory in the democratic primary before losing narrowly to Republican William Weld, a former federal prosecutor.

Robert A Brown, the university president, wrote that “Boston University as lost a great leader”, a man who was “responsible for the transformation of a regional, primarily non-residential institution with minimal research and scholarship into the modern Boston University.”

According to the Washington Post, Stephen J. Trachtenberg said, “You know the expression ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg?’ John Silber made a two-egg omelet breaking 20 eggs. He was a change agent of the most dramatic sort. Very in-your-face.”

About the Author

Alden Hartopo

Alden Hartopo is the Chimes Online Editor for the 2014-15 school year. He is a senior from Jakarta, Indonesia studying Economics and International Relations. Alden believes that campus journalism is key to maintaining transparency and communication between the college and its stakeholders. He has previously served as the Campus News Co-Editor for the 2013-2014 school year.

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