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Former Boston University President John Silber Dies At 86

This article is more than 10 years old.
John Silber on the Boston University Bridge in July 1976 (Courtesy of Boston University)
John Silber on the Boston University Bridge in July 1976 (Courtesy of Boston University)

John Silber, the sharp-tongued, pugnacious public intellectual who transformed Boston University during 25 years as president and mounted an unsuccessful run for governor of Massachusetts, died Thursday. He was 86.

Silber died of kidney failure at his Brookline home, BU spokesman Colin Riley said.

Silber took over BU, then a financially troubled commuter school of middling reputation, in 1971 and used his forceful personality to remake it into a prominent national university.

"In the seven years I have served this wonderful institution, I have come to appreciate the magnitude of John's work," current BU President Robert Brown wrote in a letter (PDF) to the university Thursday.

John Silber, right, with former Gov. William Weld at a press conference in 1995 (AP)
John Silber, right, with former Gov. William Weld at a press conference in 1995 (AP)

"John was mindful that universities are built to endure and that, to serve responsibly, their leaders must look well beyond the horizon of their own tenure and indeed their own lives," Brown wrote.

Silber, who as president had BU take over the city of Chelsea's troubled public school system, was later appointed chairman of the state Board of Education. In that role he helped institute the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, a standardized that high school students must pass to receive a diploma.

The governor and Boston's mayor both praised Silber's stewardship of BU and his impact on education.

"Boston University has been a strong institution for a long time, but there's no doubt that it became stronger and an international presence under his leadership, his insistence on rigor in all things," Gov. Deval Patrick said to reporters Thursday.

"Dr. Silber was a major figure in higher education in the 20th century, helping to expand the scope and prestige of Boston University," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in a statement. "He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. His passion for education spanned every corner of our state."

Menino added: "The city of Boston could not have asked for a better friend. He will be missed."

Erudite and combative, Silber was an outspoken critic of political correctness, communism and popular culture, but he considered himself a liberal on many issues.

He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1990, but was narrowly defeated by Republican William Weld — a loss many blamed on a television interview during which he snapped at a reporter who asked him about his weaknesses.

Former Gov. Weld told WBUR Thursday that many members of the national press never forgave him for winning that close election over Silber.

"[T]hey thought he would have gone on to be president of the United States," Weld said, "and an extremely entertaining candidate for president of the United States along the way."

"He did a great many kind things, but he covered them with a somewhat abrasive personality," said former Attorney General Frank Bellotti, who was defeated by Silber in the gubernatorial primary. "He didn’t care whether you liked him, that was not relevant to him. He just was able to accomplish a great deal and part of it was because he really didn’t care what people thought of him."

Silber was born in San Antonio, Texas, with a deformed right arm truncated below the elbow, and he made little effort to conceal his handicap.

He graduated summa cum laude from Trinity University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and fine arts in 1947. At Trinity, he was on the debate team, and one of his partners was Kathryn Underwood. The two were married in 1947.

He then studied theology, enrolled for a year at the University of Texas Law School, and earned a PhD in philosophy from Yale University.

Kathryn died in March 2005. He is also preceded in death by one son.

Silber is survived by six daughters, 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

No details on memorial services were available.

With reporting by the Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom. Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the AP reported that Silber had been battling liver disease. The actual cause of death was kidney failure.


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This article was originally published on September 27, 2012.

This program aired on September 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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