The legacy lives on: Silber’s impact on BU

The following piece examines former President John Silber’s legacy at Boston University. It includes information from Daily Free Press archives and interviews with alumni. 

Every leader leaves behind a legacy — and former Boston University President John Silber is no exception.

Silber, who served as university president from 1971–1996, died on Thursday, leaving BU officials, faculty members and students with both controversial and positive memories.

“I think being a college president is a very interesting and satisfying position,” said Silber in an April 2003 interview with The Daily Free Press. “I think a college presidency is as about as nice a toy as any grown man gets to play with.”

During his tenure, Silber experienced difficulty with students and faculty on many controversial issues, such as tuition hikes and unionizing, as well as sexuality, minority issues and drug use.

Regardless, he was known for being heavily involved in the BU community and being a candid and strong-willed individual.

“He was a great man in terms of being a leader to build the university into a major corporation,” said BU 1972 alumnus James Shrybman in an interview with The Daily Free Press. “Personally, [he was] very difficult to deal with — not accommodating in any way.”

Alan Bergstein, a 1978 School of Public Communication — now called the College of Communication — graduate, described Silber as intelligent despite his stern attitude.

“To say that he was tough would be a huge understatement,” Bergstein said. “He was arrogant, controversial, pointed, shrewd, cheap — a bully, and yes, smarter than nearly everyone else. But in all fairness, that’s a description that could be applied to many CEOs of large organizations, particularly those in great financial straits.”

Silber’s strong leadership was discouraging to the generation of students who felt they had fought and gained some student voice by then but had to start all over under Silber’s leadership, said Jay Craven, the College of Liberal Arts president from 1970–71.

“He wanted conformity — he wanted people to accept his power and not challenge it,” he said. “He was very outspoken against people who didn’t agree with him, and he was opposed to dissenters. He didn’t like dissent. And he wielded power, sometimes more successfully than oters.”

In the Beginning

Silber joined BU as president in 1971 from The University of Texas at Austin, where he was the dean of its College of Arts and Sciences.

When he started at BU, the school had an $8.8-million deficit. Silber froze salaries and asked departments to make drastic cuts to reduce the debt.

“Everybody knew as Silber was coming in, even before he arrived, that he was going to be a strong man,” Craven said.

Shrybman, who was Student Union president during Silber’s first year at BU, said Union and Silber did not often agree with its decisions.

“We were at odds with [Silber] throughout that first year because he didn’t really believe that the student union had a right to exist beyond what it itself couldncollect,” he said.

In 1972, Silber clashed with students about military recruitment on campus during the Vietnam War.

Shrybman said Silber sent Boston Police officers with dogs in full riot gear to break up peaceful protests in front of the military recruitment office on Bay State Road.

However, some students praised Silber for the progress BU made under his leadership.

“In less than four years, he has transformed Boston University from an institution in financial despair and academic decay to one of economic hope and intellectual promise,” said alumnus Bruce Percelay in an October 1974 letter printed by the Free Press.

Percelay wrote that he supported Silber for accomplishing the job he was supposed to do, rather than appealing to students.

“I do not perceive Silber’s job as one of cooing a crop of perennial malcontents,” he said. “His focus should be on the academic and financial well-being of the university.”

Students criticized Silber for substantial tuition hikes, while he defended hikes as necessary for the betterment of BU.

“It is better to be able to raise the tuition and continue our recruitment program of outstanding faculty than hold the tuition at the present level and hold the faculty back,” Silber said in the mid-1970s.

Silber supported Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 ruling to desegregate busing and public schools.

“[The] most obvious reason why we must all obey Judge Arthur Garrity’s decision is that it is the law, and that in this country, we believe that no one is above the law,” Silber said.

Silber v. Faculty 

In 1975, the National Labor Relations Board brought charges against BU for a complaint filed by 16 Health Clinic workers, alleging unfair labor practices such as firing for complaints and harassment.

Silber was subpoenaed to an October 1975 NLRB hearing, but refused to attend.

“There are lots of people who want to make it [the trial] more colorful,” Silber told the Associated Press. “But there is no submission that shows I’m a material witness.”

The College of Liberal Arts faculty voted for Silber to be removed from his position in 1976.

Ten deans called for Silber’s resignation at a Board of Trustees meeting.

“[The deans delivered a] statement of distrust in John Silber as an educational leader,” according to the Free Press in 1976.

In April 1979, BU faculty went on a weeklong strike. Five tenured professors refused to cross the picket line, and Silber brought termination proceedings against them.

Shrybman also noted Silber’s tension with faculty.

“When he got to Boston University, he was trying to assert his authority saying that BU was not a democracy, BU was a hierarchy,” he said. “Everyone was running scared, including the faculty, because at that point he was thinking of getting rid of tenure.”

Road to Politics

Silber announced his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in January 1990. To dedicate time to campaigning, he took a leave of absence from BU.

Students and faculty had mixed opinions on Silber’s gubernatorial ambitions.

“He turned BU around in 21 years and maybe he can do the same thing with the state,” said Keith Tavares, BU alumnus, in January 1990.

Tavares headed the Students for Silber support group during the campaign.

However, former BU professor Howard Zinn, who had a history of disagreements with Silber, said Silber would make a poor politician.

“He’s authoritarian, unpleasant [and] unconcerned with civil liberties and human rights,” Zinn said in a January 1990 interview with The Free Press. “I can hardly find anybody in the field [for governor] who’s worse than Silber.

In September 1990, Silber won the Democratic primary election over former State Attorney General Francis Bellotti.

However, Silber narrowly lost to Republican candidate William Weld in the general election.

“I regret the loss, but not so much for myself as for all of you who believed in my candidacy and in the programs for which I fought,” Silber said in his concession speech. “We stood for the proposition that politics is about positive campaigning, about straight talk directly to people and about common sense.”

The Later Years

Silber returned to BU in Jan. 1991 as president.

Silber was named one of the highest-paid university president in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jon Westling, University Provost, was named president-elect in Jan. 1995.

In 1996, Silber announced his resignation from the presidency. Westling took over as BU’s eighth president. However, Silber did not leave BU and instead took on the position of chancellor.

In 2002, Silber disbanded the Gay-Straight Alliance at the BU Academy, a BU high school. According to The Village Voice, Silber accused the organization of encouraging promiscuity and “homosexual militancy.”

Silber served as interim president in July 2002 for 16 months when Westling resigned.

Silber continued as chancellor until he stepped down in 2003.

The Legacy

Despite being seen as a controversial figure by many members of the BU community, Silber is still seen as having enacted sweeping changes at the university.

In an April 1996 letter to The Free Press, BU alumna Ashley Ammon said Silber’s personality may have alienated some but his role was crucial.

“Yes, BU president John R. Silber rules with a heavy fist,” she said. “However, without the abrasive and relentless persona of the Silber administration, BU would still be a debt-ridden commuter college.”

Shrybman said while he is critical of Silber, the former president’s impact on BU cannot be downplayed.

“He did a great deal for Boston University,” Shrybman said. “The size of BU now is twice what it was, and he brought great professors and did a whole bunch of wonderful things. He raised the level of [BU].”

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