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Silber speaks

You want a good story? Drop back to 2003, in the upper reaches of Boston University. The institution has been looking for a new president, and its search committee comes up with former NASA boss Daniel Goldin. The board of trustees votes unanimously July 8 to offer him the job. He accepts.

Doubts arise about the man. By October, there are serious questions about his temperament and demands. Goldin self-destructs at a dramatic board meeting on Oct. 16. BU then decides to revoke its job offer. The university pays him a whopping $1.8 million to go away. He withdraws the day before he is to assume office on Nov. 1. How's that for a plot line?

The affair is a huge embarrassment to BU in general and the search committee and board in particular. Former president John Silber, a member of both bodies who initially had been a strong Goldin supporter, takes a big hit. Where was the due diligence on this guy? If he was so bad, how did he ever get so far? Was everyone on NyQuil or what?

"This man, we saw later on, was a control freak," says Silber. "But he didn't come across as a control freak. . . . You had a highly mercurial character who, like many a successful person, has managed to hide his real intent until the last minute. And, fortunately, Mr. Goldin misplayed his hand. He started laying his cards down too soon. If he had waited another two or three weeks, he'd have had the job and then we'd have had a real disaster at the university."

He adds, "I think what distinguished this board is that having recognized the mistake they corrected it instantly before any damage was done. There was never any crisis to the university, never any loss of momentum. . . . If they had waited another week, they'd have had to pay probably $6-$7 million for the contract."

Silber later says, "I think the board did a damned good job. I think there are surprises in life. Why are there successful con men? How could there be a Mr. Lay of Enron? How could things go on in Tyco that went on in Tyco with Kozlowski?"

Silber, 78, has not talked about the mess until now. Ensconced in a brownstone on Bay State Road, boxes of books and papers still unpacked from his office move there last summer, the man keeps a low profile these days. Predictably, he thinks the Goldin imbroglio was much ado about not a whole hell of a lot -- "an embarrassment of trivial proportion. . . . It was a national story about one day except locally."

He asks, "How many universities do you know that make horrible mistakes in the selection of their presidents and they papered it over and lived with them for anywhere from six to 10 years?"

"It's not because people were stupid," Silber says about BU. "Mr. Goldin has outstanding qualities. I had the highest regard for his intelligence and for his awareness of what needed to be done to make Boston University still better. I had no idea that he would be so fearful of any independent colleagues, that he would have an administrative massacre and replace outstanding people with simply people he knew and thought he could control."

Silber calls Goldin "almost as paranoid as LBJ" and adds, "He comes in and starts looking around and the next thing we know he's got himself a list of the people he's going to fire."

Some BU board members saw problems early in the game. Former John Hancock CEO David D'Alessandro resigned to avoid having to fire Goldin later. "I think he sized him up correctly," says Silber. "And there's no question I contributed to the mistake that was made."

Looming large was an anonymous telephone call Silber received about Goldin. The caller would not identify himself, so Silber dismissed it as he does all nameless communication. Silber will not divulge the substance of the conversation except to say this:

"I failed in my responsibility -- and there's no point in trying to cover that over -- by virtue of the fact that I didn't follow up on the anonymous call that I'd received. And the board should have interrogated Mr. Goldin explicitly on the issues that were raised -- not on the assumption they were true -- but just to find out are they true or are they not true? And what are the facts? And that would have changed things substantially and probably resulted in his not getting the offer."

So what happened at the fateful Oct. 16 board meeting? "He spoke to the board in the manner that reminded one of that climactic scene in the 'Caine Mutiny' where Queeg is rolling these ball bearings around in his hand -- click-clack, click-clack. This man just went on and on about what he had to have and what he had to do. He didn't want any interference from anybody. . . . And he pretty well had a list of who he was going to get rid of. He said, 'I'm going to leave the room now and you decide: Do you want my appointment or do you not want my appointment?'

"He left the room, and one of the trustees said, 'Does he report to us or do we report to him?' By this time, after that performance, the board should have turned him down. And I should have had sense enough to turn him down."

Silber later adds, "What people don't know is that Mr. Goldin had already planned his inauguration -- or should we say coronation -- which I would suspect would have cost at least $2 million. It was unbelievable."

It has been more than a year since this debacle rocked the academic world. Goldin is history. So, in another way, is Silber. And BU still is still looking for a president.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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