John Silber, Intellectual Gunslinger

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Conversation" blog here. John Silber was a member of the Board of Advisors at the National Association of Scholars.

John Silber died this morning. He was 86. Silber served as president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, then as chancellor until 2003. He was by long odds America’s most colorful college president—one who starred in two episodes of 60 Minutes, decades apart, first as a hero for standing up to student radicals, then as a villain for his allegedly wayward way with tax returns.

He ran as a Democrat for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 and came within a whisker of winning. Silber threw away a substantial lead in the polls in the final week of that campaign by providing an on-air display of his temper and his tongue when, without provocation, he snapped at a popular female television anchor in the midst of a softball at-home-with-the-candidate interview.

Massachusetts has never lacked for larger-than-life political figures, but Silber’s misstep meant the Bay State missed the opportunity for what would have been its most flamboyant governor since the days of John Hancock. Silber was a man of immense ambition, and even more immense impatience. He got things done. More often than not, the getting was tumultuous.

I had a ringside seat to some of this. In 1987 I went to work as an assistant to Silber’s provost, John Westling, who later succeeded him as president of BU.  For the next 15 years, I worked in the BU administration, sometimes directly with Silber, more often as one of those charged with turning policy into practice.

Silber was fiercely intent on improving Boston University’s academic standards. He disdained political correctness but loathed intellectual mediocrity. We fought both battles, and the arena was often faculty appointments and tenure.

I learned in my first few months what Silber expected in his staff. He was quick with the cutting aphorism. If you didn’t know the answer to a question, he would fix you with his stare and say, “Ignorance is no excuse in the society of the learned.”

One of my early assignments was to answer each and every letter—there were hundreds—that had come from a campaign of theologians upset that Silber had blocked the reappointment in BU’s School of Theology of an instructor who, in his view, had traded scholarship for social advocacy. I was assigned to read everything she had written and to answer each letter on its individual merits.

It was, to borrow a term, a revelation to me that a university administration would devote itself to such painstaking detail over what was a relatively minor matter. But I learned that, for Silber, precision and thoroughness ranked among the highest duties of an academician. Moreover, he 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 mind. I regarded my early years working for him as my second liberal-arts education. Silber expected the people around him to have not mere opinions but ready reasons and arguments for their points.

That tough-mindedness was apparent to everyone who worked for him, but a portrait in only that hue would miss the man. He was also a cheerful gunslinger. He laughed easily; he whistled well and heedlessly; he adored opera; and he would pop off at unexpected moments with cranky declarations that the local press feasted on. “When you’re ripe, it’s time to go,” he said on radio while commenting on health-care reform. The insensitivity of it! The outrage! A few might have recognized the sly allusion to King Lear’s “Ripeness is all.”

Silber made his mark by remaking Boston University from a down-at-its-heels commuter college to a substantial research university. He was fond of noting that, had Boston University not been sitting across the Charles River from MIT and Harvard, its achievements would have loomed larger. Beginning in the 1970s, Silber unleashed a campaign to transform the place, buying up brownstones by the dozen, hiring prominent scholars, wrenching up admissions standards, and seeking funds wherever he could. He had working alliances with Sen. Ted Kennedy and with Kevin White, Boston’s longtime mayor. Good things mysteriously fell into his lap. The huge Commonwealth Armory was sold to the university for a song. Major grants came his way.

Not that Silber had much skill as a fund raiser. He could be charming, but he couldn’t hold the expression long enough for most would-be donors to sign the check. More than once, he drove off benefactors by suggesting none too delicately that their largess was insufficiently ample.

Then there were his wars with the faculty. At one point in the 1970s, Silber had so offended his deans and board members that he faced open rebellion. He came close to getting handed a ticket back to Texas, where he’d been dean of arts and sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, but he faced down his opponents. All but one of the rebellious deans were summarily fired. Silber seemed to have left that one as an Ancient Mariner to tell the tale. After surviving that trial, Silber took on the faculty union and succeeded in getting it decertified on the grounds that BU faculty members shoulder important administrative responsibilities.

That victory and his determination to make his own assessments on faculty appointments and tenure cases made Silber a monster in the eyes of some faculty members. He outlasted most of them. Even Howard Zinn eventually opted for retirement. By the 1990s, an acronym had evolved: BSASH, for “Before Silber and Still Here.” It was a dwindling category.

Ripeness, I suppose, came even to John Silber. What is his legacy? His last years were, I think, ones of keen disappointment. In an ill-judged moment, he played a role in ousting his successor and, in the turmoil that followed, lost his own standing with the board.

BU’s current president has built on the foundations of the research university Silber created but has completely abandoned Silber’s countercultural vision. Silber’s view of himself as a colossus of sorts, one of Emerson’s “representative men,” I fear lies in dust. But he does leave something: a loyalty, among many of those whose lives he touched, to uncompromising academic standards.

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