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John Silber: Iron-Willed, Combative, Caring

The late John Silber, in 1970 (Courtesy Boston University)

The late John Silber, in 1970 (Courtesy Boston University)

BOSTON — John Silber, the combative, brilliant, outspoken man who transformed Boston University, died early Thursday morning from kidney failure. He was 86.

Many admire his legacy, but even those who loved him often bristled at his combative style, sometimes-conservative ideas and blunt assessments of education, politics and media.

The BU that Silber took over as president in 1971 differed greatly from the one he left in 2003. The university’s net worth increased almost 1,200 percent. The school’s footprint more than doubled. The number of applicants almost tripled, and research funding increased from $14.1 million in 1971 to $337.2 million today.

“Unquestionably he was a combative person. On the other hand, it was less well-known that he was a deeply caring person.”
– Tom Birmingham,
former state Senate president

“He did an extraordinary job building Boston University during his leadership, just an amazing job,” said Alan Leventhal, a member of the BU board and a board chairman during Silber’s tenure. Leventhal says many of Silber’s accomplishments came as a result of his strong will and passion.

“Many people disagreed with John; I think that was his great strength. He challenged people,” Leventhal continued. “And I think the end result was better for BU and the end result was what we see in BU today.”

Silber’s supporters at BU say he just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was a distinguished professor at the City University of New York when Silber began efforts to bring him and other well-known scholars to BU. 

Wiesel said Silber was devoted to learning and to truth, “as painful as it could be. But for truth, he had to pay a price. He couldn’t care less.”

Silber angered and offended many other members of the faculty and staff. Five years after he arrived, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to have him removed. Some members of the English Department still smart at Silber calling them a “damn matriarchy.” National news outlets came to BU in the late ’80s to film student protests of Silber’s ban on overnight dorm guests of the opposite sex, even family members. Silber’s salary, which at the time was the highest in the nation among university presidents, irritated even his supporters.

The public explosion that made Silber’s temperament famous occurred in his home during an interview with former WCVB-TV anchor Natalie Jacobson:

Jacobson: What do you see as your strength and, if you will, if you think you have one, a weakness?

Silber: I think that my strength is competence and my strength is honesty.

Jacobson: OK, and your weakness?

Silber: And I think that… You find the weakness. I don’t have to go around telling you what’s wrong with me. The media have manufactured about 16,000 non-existing qualities that are offensive and attributed them all to me. Let them have their field day.

That outburst is widely believed to have cost Silber his commanding lead in the 1990 election for governor. Republican William Weld won by four points.

“He was a titan,” said Weld, who left Silber a message this weekend to let him know that people were sending him their best wishes. Although Weld and Silber fought a tough race, Weld later appointed Silber chairman of the state Board of Education, and Silber accepted.

“It is the measure of the man that he was willing to discharge those duties for the people, even though nominally it was for the little whippersnapper who had beaten him,” Weld added with a laugh.

Silber became a well-known figure at the State House, especially during the period when BU ran the Chelsea public schools. 

“Unquestionably he was a combative person,” said former Senate President Tom Birmingham, who worked closely with Silber for many years. “On the other hand, it was less well-known that he was a deeply caring person. He cared about people, he cared about ideas, and he was passionately caring about education, especially for poor kids.”

Silber’s older brother, Paul, says John Silber learned the value of education and self-reliance from birth, when he was born with a right arm that did not fully form.

“We grew up in the days of cowboys and Indians,” Paul Silber said. “Everybody fought for the underdog. You did things for the right. Your word was your bond. You played the cards you were dealt, and he believed you could win with them.”

And, says brother Paul, John Silber did.

With additional reporting by Katie Broida, Kathleen McNerney and Monica Brady-Myerov

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