Leadership & Governance

John Silber, Transformative and Controversial Boston U. Chief, Dies at 86

Tom Herde, The Boston Globe, Getty Images

John R. Silber, who became Boston University's president in 1971, is credited with helping to transform the institution from a struggling commuter college into a research university.
September 27, 2012

John R. Silber, the long-serving and controversial former Boston University president known for his intellect and his sharp tongue, died on Thursday of kidney failure. He was 86.

Mr. Silber was named Boston University's president in 1971, and held the post for more than a quarter-century. In 1996 he became the university's first chancellor, and remained in the position until 2003.

Mr. Silber is credited with helping to transform Boston University from a struggling commuter college into a residential institution with a strong research reputation. Along the way he amused and angered colleagues with blunt talk and a style that some called intimidating.

In a written statement Robert A. Brown, Boston's current president, did not gloss over Mr. Silber's complex reputation.

"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," said Mr. Brown, who was a longtime faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before arriving at Boston University in 2005. "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."

Mr. Silber's bluntness was underpinned by a philosophy of what higher education should be and, often more important, what it should not be. He had a profound distaste for political correctness and was leery of professors' chasing what he viewed as fads in academe.

In one of his most infamous provocations, Mr. Silber, a philosopher, once referred to the university's English department as "a damn matriarchy," even though male English professors far outnumbered women at the time.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University president and a colleague of Mr. Silber's at Boston, said Mr. Silber "couldn't resist a smart remark."

Mr. Silber also couldn't resist a good fight. Before he came to Boston, Mr. Silber was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, where he vehemently opposed a plan to split the college into separate units. He accused Frank C. Erwin Jr., a backer of the plan and former Texas regent, of trying to "destroy the university."

That hardline position cost Mr. Silber his job at Texas in 1970.

"The war is over. You're fired," Mr. Erwin told Mr. Silber at the time, according to Mr. Silber's account.

"He was very tough on people, intolerant of shortcomings, really unforgiving, and picked more fights than he had to," said Mr. Trachtenberg, who was vice president for administrative services at Boston during Mr. Silber's tenure. "He could have gotten a lot more done with honey than he did with vinegar. But he got a lot done with vinegar, let me tell you."

Underneath it all, however, Mr. Silber showed compassion and affection for his friends. On Thursday morning, before Mr. Trachtenberg learned of Mr. Silber's death, he found a letter from Mr. Silber in his mailbox.

"He wrote to me and said his doctors had told him he only had a few days to live, and he wanted to write and thank me for my friendship," Mr. Trachtenberg said.

Mr. Trachtenberg took the letter inside to show his wife, logged onto the Internet, and saw the news that the man who had only recently written to him was now dead.

"A little creepy," Mr. Trachtenberg said.

Gubernatorial Run

In 1990, Mr. Silber went on leave from the university to run as the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts governor. While he lost to William F. Weld, a Republican, Mr. Silber's campaign proved an opportunity for those who knew him to render public judgments, both positive and negative.

Mr. Silber's critics, many of them on Boston's faculty, argued that his record as president should disqualify him from office. Many were particularly critical of his successful effort, in 1984, to decertify the university's faculty union.

In the throes of the campaign, Helen H. Vendler, a former president of the Modern Language Association and a longtime Boston faculty member before joining Harvard University, referred to Mr. Silber as a "petty despot" during an interview with The Chronicle.

While many shared that critical view, Mr. Silber was not without supporters. Burton Raffel, a renowned translator who worked with Mr. Silber, denounced the attacks on Mr. Silber during the campaign.

"In spite of the absolute falsehoods about his 'closed mind,' he is one of the most intensely rational and open people I have ever known," Mr. Raffel, a professor emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, wrote to The Chronicle in 1990. "He makes mistakes; he sometimes moves too fast; he does not like stupidity; and he positively loathes incompetence and dishonesty. But he relishes frank and reasonably intelligent disputation."

Indeed, Mr. Silber viewed the role of provocateur as part of his job description.

"Most college presidents go out of their way to avoid controversy," he told The Boston Globe in 1990.

"I don't think that's the function of an educator," he continued. "What you call proactive, I call educative."