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John Silber's legacy at BU recalled at campus memorial service

Posted by Roy Greene  November 29, 2012 06:52 PM

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(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

Writer Tom Wolfe at memorial service for John Silber.

The Boston University community celebrated the legacy of the former president and chancellor John Silber on Thursday as friends, colleagues, and national figures recalled his leadership and influence that stretched beyond the campus.

“Although trained as a philosopher, John, like his father was an architect at heart,” Robert A. Brown, the university’s president, said at a memorial service in the school’s George Sherman Union. “For Boston University he envisioned a campus more integrated and cohesive than he found in 1971.”

Silber died Sept. 27 at 86 at his home in Brookline.

Silber came to the school that 1971 when it was struggling to stay financially solvent. As president, Silber, a San Antonio native educated at Trinity and Yale universities, put the school on strong financial ground.

During his tenure, BU’s endowment climbed from $18.8 million to $430 million, and its physical footprint more than doubled.

Brown said Silber’s legacy will be his commitment to high standards for faculty, academics, and students that turned the school around and transformed it into the renowned research institution it is today.

“He saw the potential in a regional commuter school and came here to raise our standers, our sights, and our stature,” Brown said.

The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Academy, and the Tsai Performance Center all opened under Silber’s watch. He also brought several intellectual luminaries to the faculty, including literary critics Christopher Ricks and Roger Shattuck, and Nobel Prize winners Derek Walcott, Saul Bellow, and Elie Wiesel.

“He was not really provocative, but he was enlightening. He always had a way of finding something new to say about something old because he was a philosopher, after all,” Wiesel, a personal friend, said in a video shown at the service.

Silber, known for his sharp tongue and temperament as much for his achievements, remained president until 1996 and served as chancellor from 1996-2003. He again took on the role of president for 18 months when his successor and protégé, Jon Westling, unexpectedly resigned in 2002.

In 1983, he was appointed to the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, popularly known as the Kissinger Commission, after its chairman, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

Silber also made is mark on Massachusetts, coming within 77,000 votes of being elected governor when he ran as a Democrat in 1990.

After his failed run, Silber served as chairman of the state Board of Education from 1995-1999 and was a chief architect of the state’s MCAS exams. He also established the Boston Scholars Program, an urban scholarship program, in 1973 and the university assumed responsibility for the Chelsea public schools in 1989.

“John Silber was a man of integrity, character, and courage. He also was my friend,” Kissinger said in a video message.

Kissinger said Silber could be “unbelievably difficult” when working on the commission, but only because he did not want to settle for compromise.

Friends and colleagues all recalled Silber’s encouragement and critiques of their work, and in a moment of laughter, Wiesel speculated what he is doing now.

“I think he’s trying to give advice to God,” he said.

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