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BU reaps what Silber sowed

In 1995, then-Boston University president John Silber was bloviating to David Barboza, a talented young reporter who hoped to publish a biography of the mercurial BU leader. "The tectonic plates in Boston are shifting," Silber said, while gazing across the Charles River toward Harvard and MIT. "There are now three great universities on the Charles."

To which we can only say: Ha, ha, ha.

MIT has its financial problems, and perhaps Harvard is not the Emerald City it thinks it is. But what is transpiring at Banana University is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Let's review the bidding. A small but powerful coterie of pro-Silber trustees, including former Church of Scientology lawyer Earle Cooley, economist Jim Howell, and investment adviser Dexter Dodge -- "the grumpy old men," as they are unfondly known -- are close to accomplishing their fool's errand: chasing former NASA administrator Daniel Goldin away from the BU presidency.

Their motives are laughable. Having short-circuited the formal search process for a new president, and having signed up a crony of Silber's pet Washington lobbyist, they are now complaining about Goldin's "temperament." That is an apparent allusion to Goldin's stated desire to rid himself of the inner circle that has been calling the shots at BU for the past decade, i.e. the grumps.

Quite astutely, Goldin is posing as an aggrieved party, informing the trustees that he and his wife have already donated their furniture to charity, anticipating a move to Boston, and adding that he "had the sad task of informing my grandchildren that the inaugural might have to be canceled." It is all too, too sad. In truth, he is laying down markers and hoping for a big payoff if the trustees give him the gate at tomorrow's spooky Halloween showdown.

What is the damage so far? The university's reputation has suffered terribly, though its figurative stock has not been trading at a premium lately. BU is huge, and its vast academic empires in the humanities, engineering, science, and medicine chug along regardless of the turmoil in the executive suites. A financial windfall like BU's recent landing of a $200 million, federally funded, bioterror lab will be unaffected by the Silber-Goldin follies.

Which is not to say there won't be costs. Silber has treated students contemptuously throughout his career and -- surprise! -- they repay him in kind when the alumni-solicitor leeches call. Annual giving, an important revenue stream at actual universities, is a joke at BU. Ringling Bros. owner Kenneth Feld, the head of the current capital campaign, has just resigned from the BU board. Not a good sign, we can agree.

So what happens now? Here is my best guess: Goldin is a goner. We are going to see an interesting poker game played by two veteran lawyers, Robert Barnett of Williams and Connolly in Washington, D. C., and Boston's own Robert Popeo. Barnett, who squeezed Simon & Schuster for Hillary Rodham Clinton's legendary $8 million book advance, wants to nail down as much as the $4.5 million that his client Goldin might have made over his five-year contract as BU's president. Popeo, representing BU, can be expected to argue that Goldin never took office -- his term is supposed to begin on Nov. 1 -- and thus cannot grab a huge pile of walking-away money.

It is worth dwelling briefly on the tragedy of John Silber, who is ultimately responsible for the Goldin debacle. A fiery, ambitious, Yale-trained philosopher, he was one of the most promising academic leaders of his time. He could have been somebody.

But ever since he was passed over for a job in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet more than 20 years ago -- for reasons of "temperament," as it happens -- he has been an angry, often mean-spirited, and divisive presence in Boston. Bill Weld became Massachusetts's accidental governor, thanks to Silber's ill-timed outbursts.

It was during that 1990 gubernatorial campaign against Weld that Silber memorably suggested that old people might as well crawl off and die, saying, "When you've had a long life, and you're `ripe,' it's time to go."

John Silber is now 77 years old. He has reached the stage that comes after ripeness. Now it is time to go.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. Hise-dress is

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