The irascible, rule-breaking Texan academic, who salted his speeches with snippets of Socrates and Shakespeare passed away Sept. 27 at 86. The Boston University community took a moment to celebrate his legacy on Nov. 29.
John R. Silber helped bring Boston University to new levels of academic excellence and financial stability, ran for office, and was a chief architect for student testing standards in the state.
Take a look at some notable moments in the career of the avatar of academic standards and the impact of the former school president.
The former Boston University president had a knack for butting heads with opponents. Silber was proudly elitist and forthright in his traditionalism. He loved to skewer welfare, feminism, bilingual education, and anything else he considered a liberal piety.
Pictured: Boston University President John R. Silber was determined to wait-out the shouting of protesting students before addressing them at Marsh Plaza in 1972. Next
Dr. Silber was born in San Antonio in 1926 and he earned a degree from Trinity University there in 1947. In 1955, he got a doctorate in Philosophy from Yale and began teaching philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin. Five years later, he became the department's chairman.
Pictured: Silber with French President Francois Mitterrand and Professor Elie Wiesel who gave the invocation speech in 1989. Next
Silber became dean of the University of Texas department of College of Arts and Sciences in 1967 at 41 but came into conflict with the school's regent, Frank Erwin.
Erwin wanted to split the arts and sciences departments and expand enrollment while Silber wanted to clamp down on the number of students and focus on bringing in Nobel laureates and scholars.
Erwin, who Silber called "the model for J.R. Ewing," fired Silber in 1970. Next
Sympathetic pieces on his high-profile conflict coincided with an opening of the presidency position at Boston University-- then a streetcar college.
Dr. Silber reportedly told the search committee that BU's campus was "the ugliest damned place I've ever seen." Next
Between 1971 and 1996, Silber brought big changes to Boston University as president and as chancellor from 1996 to 2003. He improved the school’s finances, largely through his emphasis on raising its academic standing.
During his presidency, BU’s endowment went from $18.8 million to $430 million and its physical plant more than doubled. Next
Pictured: Boston University President John Silber met with Iranian students protesting the killing of Iranian Boston University student Ali Majidi.
Students marched to Silber's office after meeting to protest, and Silber ran into them as he unexpectedly returned to office. Next
Dr. Silber recruited four Nobel laureates where there had been none. He disbanded BU's football team, citing financial losses.
He was considered a liberal in Texas for supporting unions and integration and opposing the death penalty. In Boston, locals discovered his criticism of some entitlement programs. He ordered a BU-affiliated high school academy disband its gay-straight alliance group. Next
Historian-activist Howard Zinn was involved in many conflicts with Dr. Silber. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Dr. Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn accused Dr. Zinn of arson and cited him as a prime example of teachers "who poison the well of academe." Many still remember the tense televised debate during the Nicaraguan Contra affair between Dr. Silber and Noam Chomsky.
Pictured: "Red Auerbach," Boston Celtics President and General Manager got his cigar lit from John R. Silber, Boston University President in 1984. Next
Dr. Silber’s talent to provoke proved a double-edged sword in the political arena.
With the state reeling economically and memories of Governor Michael S. Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential campaign still fresh, voter resentment of the political establishment ran high in 1990. Next
Dr. Silber—a political outsider with a sharp-tongued, no-prisoners approach—seemed the right man in the right state at the right time.
Pictured: Mass. Governor William Weld greeted John Silber as they prepared to debate in 1990. Next
Pictured: Senator Ted Kennedy and John Silber at Early Childhood Center where Ted endorsed Silber in 1990. Next
Dr. Silber came within 77,000 votes of becoming governor of Massachusetts in 1990. Voters, fed up with Beacon Hill lawmakers, liked Silber's no-holds-barred style.
But he made so many impolitic remarks on such topics as immigration and health care, the gaffs became known as "Silber Shockers." William F. Weld won the race, and later appointed Silber to the state Board of Education. Next
Dr. Silber was born with a malformed right arm, which ended in a stump, just below the elbow, with a rudimentary thumb. Schoolmates dubbed him “One-Armed Pete.”
Many of his critics would later see his combative manner as a response to those childhood taunts. Next
Dr. Silber published several books, with titles such as "Straight Shooting: What's Wrong with America and How to Fix it" and "Architecture of the Absurd," in which he critiqued the works of architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind.
Silber called the Stata Center at MIT, designed by Frank Gehry, the "piece de resistance of absurdity in architecture." Next
Dr. Silber proposed that BU take over management of the Boston Public Schools. Instead, the university assumed responsibility for the Chelsea public schools in 1989. Next
Massachusetts Board of Education Chairman Dr. John Silber gestured as he addressed a news conference in 1999.
Silber offered to resign if education board members would support Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci in appointing James Peyser as the new commissioner. Next
Pictured: Boston University Chancellor John Silber, left, at the parole hearing for Benjamin LaGuer, a convicted rapist.
Since Benjamin LaGuer was convicted almost 30 years ago of committing a horrific rape, many luminaries have questioned whether it was a miscarriage of justice, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Governor Deval Patrick, and Dr. Silber. Next
He referred to the English department, a quarter of whose tenured faculty was female, as a “damn matriarchy.” At his urging, the university successfully sued to have the faculty union overturned. He had honorary degrees awarded to such controversial figures as El Salvador’s Jose Napoleon Duarte and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Pictured: Philippine President Corazon Aquino and Boston University President John Silber laughed during speech in 1986. Next
The lavishness of Dr. Silber’s compensation at BU was often noted by his critics. But it was his temperament that inspired the harshest criticism of him.
To opponents, Dr. Silber was a tyrant and bully – “the meanest SOB on campus,” Nora Ephron called him in a 1977 Esquire article—who fostered a cult of personality at the nation’s fourth-largest private university.
Still, it was BU that most fully felt the force of Dr. Silber’s personality and intellect.
“My major contribution,” he said, “has been to declare that there is one university in the country with no interest in intellectual fads, in following propaganda and ideology.”
Few contemporary figures better illustrated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage that “every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Next
“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 on Nov. 29. “For Boston University he envisioned a campus more integrated and cohesive than he found in 1971.”
“John Silber was a man of integrity, character, and courage. He also was my friend,” former secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in a video message.
Friends and colleagues all recalled Silber’s encouragement and critiques of their work, and in a moment of laughter, Elie Wiesel, a personal friend, speculated what he is doing now.
“I think he’s trying to give advice to God,” he said. Back to the beginning
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