John Silber, Intellectual Gunslinger

Sep 28, 2012 |  Peter Wood

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John Silber, Intellectual Gunslinger

Sep 28, 2012 | 

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Conversation" blog here. John Silber was a member of the Board of Advisors at the National Association of Scholars.

John Silber died this morning. He was 86. Silber served as president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, then as chancellor until 2003. He was by long odds America’s most colorful college president—one who starred in two episodes of 60 Minutes, decades apart, first as a hero for standing up to student radicals, then as a villain for his allegedly wayward way with tax returns.

He ran as a Democrat for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 and came within a whisker of winning. Silber threw away a substantial lead in the polls in the final week of that campaign by providing an on-air display of his temper and his tongue when, without provocation, he snapped at a popular female television anchor in the midst of a softball at-home-with-the-candidate interview.

Massachusetts has never lacked for larger-than-life political figures, but Silber’s misstep meant the Bay State missed the opportunity for what would have been its most flamboyant governor since the days of John Hancock. Silber was a man of immense ambition, and even more immense impatience. He got things done. More often than not, the getting was tumultuous.

I had a ringside seat to some of this. In 1987 I went to work as an assistant to Silber’s provost, John Westling, who later succeeded him as president of BU.  For the next 15 years, I worked in the BU administration, sometimes directly with Silber, more often as one of those charged with turning policy into practice.

Silber was fiercely intent on improving Boston University’s academic standards. He disdained political correctness but loathed intellectual mediocrity. We fought both battles, and the arena was often faculty appointments and tenure.

I learned in my first few months what Silber expected in his staff. He was quick with the cutting aphorism. If you didn’t know the answer to a question, he would fix you with his stare and say, “Ignorance is no excuse in the society of the learned.”

One of my early assignments was to answer each and every letter—there were hundreds—that had come from a campaign of theologians upset that Silber had blocked the reappointment in BU’s School of Theology of an instructor who, in his view, had traded scholarship for social advocacy. I was assigned to read everything she had written and to answer each letter on its individual merits.

It was, to borrow a term, a revelation to me that a university administration would devote itself to such painstaking detail over what was a relatively minor matter. But I learned that, for Silber, precision and thoroughness ranked among the highest duties of an academician. Moreover, he looked upon academic administration not as a task for managers but as an intellectual calling—not quite scholarship but something like a fierce allegiance to excellence of mind. I regarded my early years working for him as my second liberal-arts education. Silber expected the people around him to have not mere opinions but ready reasons and arguments for their points.

That tough-mindedness was apparent to everyone who worked for him, but a portrait in only that hue would miss the man. He was also a cheerful gunslinger. He laughed easily; he whistled well and heedlessly; he adored opera; and he would pop off at unexpected moments with cranky declarations that the local press feasted on. “When you’re ripe, it’s time to go,” he said on radio while commenting on health-care reform. The insensitivity of it! The outrage! A few might have recognized the sly allusion to King Lear’s “Ripeness is all.”

Silber made his mark by remaking Boston University from a down-at-its-heels commuter college to a substantial research university. He was fond of noting that, had Boston University not been sitting across the Charles River from MIT and Harvard, its achievements would have loomed larger. Beginning in the 1970s, Silber unleashed a campaign to transform the place, buying up brownstones by the dozen, hiring prominent scholars, wrenching up admissions standards, and seeking funds wherever he could. He had working alliances with Sen. Ted Kennedy and with Kevin White, Boston’s longtime mayor. Good things mysteriously fell into his lap. The huge Commonwealth Armory was sold to the university for a song. Major grants came his way.

Not that Silber had much skill as a fund raiser. He could be charming, but he couldn’t hold the expression long enough for most would-be donors to sign the check. More than once, he drove off benefactors by suggesting none too delicately that their largess was insufficiently ample.

Then there were his wars with the faculty. At one point in the 1970s, Silber had so offended his deans and board members that he faced open rebellion. He came close to getting handed a ticket back to Texas, where he’d been dean of arts and sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, but he faced down his opponents. All but one of the rebellious deans were summarily fired. Silber seemed to have left that one as an Ancient Mariner to tell the tale. After surviving that trial, Silber took on the faculty union and succeeded in getting it decertified on the grounds that BU faculty members shoulder important administrative responsibilities.

That victory and his determination to make his own assessments on faculty appointments and tenure cases made Silber a monster in the eyes of some faculty members. He outlasted most of them. Even Howard Zinn eventually opted for retirement. By the 1990s, an acronym had evolved: BSASH, for “Before Silber and Still Here.” It was a dwindling category.

Ripeness, I suppose, came even to John Silber. What is his legacy? His last years were, I think, ones of keen disappointment. In an ill-judged moment, he played a role in ousting his successor and, in the turmoil that followed, lost his own standing with the board.

BU’s current president has built on the foundations of the research university Silber created but has completely abandoned Silber’s countercultural vision. Silber’s view of himself as a colossus of sorts, one of Emerson’s “representative men,” I fear lies in dust. But he does leave something: a loyalty, among many of those whose lives he touched, to uncompromising academic standards.


| September 28, 2012 - 10:05 PM

In May 2000 Dr. Silber gave the Falmouth Forum’s lecture at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole entitled “Barriers to Education Reform”. His presentation was a thorough and meticulous piecing together of the elements of education’s decline, much like NAS would present over the next decade.

We exchamged correspondence on my research on a related topic (“American Cultural Transformation: The Ideology of Diversity”). His response to “social justice” was simply that “Once schools began to believe there was no equality of opportunity unless there was equality of achievement, all standards were suspect”. He concluded his May 2000 lecture that “the prospects are not bright” for the reversal of these trends.

What I respected most about Dr. Silber was his intellectual courage in the face of widespread ridicule, even with his concomittent errors in judgement. Those in the university who know what Dr. Silber understood have not the courage to say it. That is his leqacy and makes it all worthwhile.

Tina Trent

| September 29, 2012 - 5:51 PM

I am deeply troubled by this tribute to John Silber.  His vicious, years-long abuse of the victim of Benjamin LaGuer excludes him from consideration as someone who valued the truth . . . or stood up to political correctness. 

When it suited him, or rather his self-image as a preening, Atticus Finch type, he was as capable as the most leftist of his tenure-tantrum enemies of ignoring facts, rationality, scholarship, intellectual integrity, objectivity, and common decency. 

Even after LaGuer’s DNA was matched to the crime (by an expert admired and vetted by the Innocence Project) Silber argued that LaGuer should still be released from prison on the grounds that the rapist had convinced himself of his own innocence (so much for the truth)—and also on the grounds that Silber himself had done so much to allegedly “rehabilitate” LaGuer, including arranging several fake degrees and a place for LaGuer in a graduate program upon release.  That’s a perversion of academic principles.  The video of Silber defending this stance is utterly appalling.  It represents the last nail in the coffin of academic integrity.

I suspect that Silber may even have played a role in LaGuer’s disruption of the victim as she lay on her own deathbed.  He clearly must have had help from his defense team (prominent member: John Silber) in order to locate the victim in her hospital room and contact her from prison by phone.  LaGuer then gained access to the dying woman by pretending to be a priest, apparently in order to extract a “deathbed confession” from her, or just get off on torturing her some more, as rapists are wont to do.  This was an unbelievably horrifying experience for the victim and her family. 

I am staggered that there is such willful amnesia regarding the sickening behavior of John Silber and scores of other prominent Boston academicians regarding their shameful, racially motivated defense of Benjamin LaGuer.  I recommend that you reach out to the victim’s family if you would like to know the truth about the horrors John Silber and others visited upon them and the victim, through all her declining years after the rape.

The victim had a name: Lennice Plant.  She was a military veteran.  She served our country and was loved by her children.  She was not a racist, nor a liar.  Reporters closest to the case, who spent years trying to “prove” LaGuer’s innocence, have mostly receded in ashamed, spineless silence, but lies still abound on the internet.  It would be a worthwhile project to make sure the truth is told. 

Here’s a start: John Silber should be remembered as the leader of a lynch mob—a mob that terrorized an powerless, innocent, elderly rape victim so they could preen about their commitments to faux social justice.  And that make him a product of all the academic fads and sins he pretended to rail against, not a critic of them. 

A real person was destroyed by a city of academicians of all political persuasions.  That should be the beginning of the discussion about John Silber’s legacy.