Campus, News

Former BU President John Silber dies at 86

Former Boston University President John Silber is photographed in 1993. He died of kidney failure early Thursday morning in his Brookline home. His tenure as president lasted from 1971 to 1996.

Former Boston University President John Silber, 86, died of kidney failure early Thursday morning after a long illness.

Silber served as university president for 25 years from 1971 to 1996, and as chancellor from 1997 to 2003. He also served as acting president for 16 months after President Jon Westling resigned in July 2002.

“Boston University for nearly three decades was synonymous with John Silber’s leadership,” said BU spokesman Colin Riley. “He had a clear vision and had, during this, hurdles to overcome to improve the university and was able to do it with the support of trustees and faculty … I’ve always said that most students or faculty wouldn’t even be here if not for the caliber school that BU became under John Silber.”

He became president of BU with a vision of improving the faculty, increasing the endowment and improving the student body.

While his approach was sometimes ill-received, he effectively transformed BU from a regional and commuter school to the residential and research university it is currently, said BU President Robert Brown in a phone interview.

“Boston University has started a tremendous transition from a region-based university from 1971, and it’s still going,” Brown said. “John led that — it was his big accomplishment at BU.”

He said that Dr. Silber’s major contributions include the establishment of a residential, dormitory-based lifestyle with the acquisition of various buildings and land plots.

“He laid the groundwork,” Brown said.

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore said that BU is at its current level of prestige because of Silber’s efforts while president.

“This was a person who really, when we talk about transforming an institution, is at the heart of transforming it,” he said.

Elmore said that part of Silber’s legacy was to help BU into becoming a more competitive, world-class academic institution. He cited Silber’s push to change BU from a mainly commuter-based university into a residential one.

“He transformed BU,” Elmore said. “We’re a great private, residential research institution because of John Silber — a great residential place for research.”

When Silber became president, BU had an $8.8-million deficit, and he was forced to begin his tenure by freezing salaries. In 1975 when faculty voted to unionize, Silber refused to recognize the union.

Silber took a leave of absence from BU in 1990 to run for governor of Massachusetts. He defeated veteran politician Francis Xavier Bellotti in the Democratic primary elections Sept. 18, winning 55 percent of the vote.

He lost, however, to Republican candidate William Weld. Silber was later appointed head of Massachusetts’ Board of Education by Weld.

In an interview with The Daily Free Press on April 28, 2003, Silber recalled his tenure as president of BU. Upon his return, he described the job as rigorous, but exciting.

“Recruiting faculty members and recruiting and evaluating deans and administrators and making decisions that are appropriate to the operation of the university, balancing the budget — those are all time-consuming and they’re somewhat difficult jobs, but they have a lot of satisfaction that goes into them,” he said.

Many BU students were critical of Silber and the tuition hikes during his tenure, among other political reasons.

Brown commented on Dr. Silber’s decisive, and sometimes controversial, personality.

“It’s clear that John was an assertive leader and had clear opinions about how the university should run,” he said.

But some professors, he said, did not always agree with his policies.

“They weren’t always well received,” he said.

But he said that Dr. Silber was “one of the brightest people” he had ever met.

“He was able to engage you on any topic,” Brown said.

In 2003, Silber said the campus was more focused on politics than academics in the 1970s.

“It was a pretty inactive campus when it came to studying,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to sit out there and raise hell and not study than it is to just do that silent, difficult work of mastering the courses that you’re taking.”

Robert Knox, chair of the BU board of trustees who studied under Silber’s tenure, said the former president was “brilliant” and credited him with major changes to BU.

“The University would not have achieved its current prominence without his decades long dedication to building both the physical campus and the quality of the faculty,” said Knox, a 1974 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences [formerly known as the College of Liberal Arts] and a 1975 Graduate School of Management alumnus. “He was the most tenacious advocate for BU and higher education that I have ever known.”

Riley said that in the end, Silber’s biggest priority was education.

“I think most people would be surprised to know that he was a doting father and grandfather. He loved children. He cared very much for quality of education,” he said. “Education was his highest priority, and he cared very much for making sure public schools and higher education institutions provided the best education possible so that individuals would be able to reach their full potential.”

Sydney L. Shea contributed to this article.


  1. Good riddance. He was a criminal. And not much of an academic at that

    • @SC and what was his crime? Not an academic? Based on what?
      Never a more driven man than Dr. John Silber. He will be missed by us – ALL.

      • Thank you Jon. Dr. Silber was a great man. Many of his critics did not agree with the yardstick he set for the university. He dared to compete against Harvard after all, and did so successfully, by recruiting for BU some of the best faculty in the world. As a student in the 90s, I remember how Silber’s critics thought the School of Management was too costly, too lavish, and so too were the new student dorms being developed near the armory. Silber stood his ground, In the end BU has come to resemble more of what Dr. Silber planned for it, than those of the lower standards demanded by his critics. So what, if we could not throw loud parties, unofficially we still managed to entertain even a homeless person in our dormroon, and engaged in rigorous conversations of politics and the like. Today, the physical plant and academic stature of BU are owed much to the vision and tireless work of Dr. Silber.

  2. The Caudillo of the Charles is Dead. It is amazing how the media is spinning Silber as a “liberal”. Silber and BU lost several First Amendment lawsuits in the 1980s. Silber invited reactionary Third World personalities to BU, like Chief Buthlezi of South Africa and gave them Honorary Degrees. Maybe Silber felt a common bond w/such people. Silber had nothing but complete disdain for students when he was president, which is why the alumni giving rate is so damn low. Silber was an autocrat, a tyrant, a reactionary, two-faced hypocrite who presided over BU at the behest of a crony/crony capitalist, spineless , effete, hen-pecked, and hand picked Board of Trustees. If he was a “liberal” he definitely showed it in his ability to negotiate a “super welfare” severance package which include a free home in Brookline until he died. Now that he’s dead, BU needs to reclaim its property. I absolutely “loved” the man as you can tell.

  3. Jim from the 1980s

    John Silber was a great man who challenged both left-wing orthodoxy and the Democratic and Republican parties themselves (when he ran as a Democrat for governor in 1990).

    But this is the man who built the modern Boston U.

    The world is a less interesting place today without him.

    Jim S.

  4. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of Dr. John Silber but please
    show some class and a little respect for the departed – curb the grave dancing.

  5. God was kind to Dr. Silber. You say, “how”? God, was kind to Silber in that Silber rode herd over BU for nearly 3 decades before the creation and mass scale adoption of the Internet and Social Media. If Silber was a college president today with his patented, near signature contempt for students, faculty and staff; he would have been pushed over board by the Board of Trustees because he would have been deemed too much of an embarrassment and liability. Silber was making nearly $1 million a year in an age, when the presidents of Harvard and Stanford were barely making $500k. Was he two times better than they were, or was BU two times a better school than Harvard/Stanford? He is now being potrayed as a liberal. Too bad left wing political science professors like Howard Zinn and Murray Levin died in the last decade. If they were here, they would tell you, what they told us students in their classes: Silber granted them measly pay raises, made their lives difficult, short shrifted them on graduate students and resources while demanding that they teach an above average level of courses and criticized them publicly for “grade inflation”. Silber the “liberal” was an apologist for apartheid. He refused to divest university investments in companies that did business w/the apartheid regime. Silber the “liberal” was a member of President Reagan’s right-wing task force on Latin America which included other “liberals” like Dr. Kissinger. Silber the “liberal” kept files on student activists i.e J.Edgar Hoover style (research the Free Press in Spring 1987). Silber the hypocrite called BU students in the late 1980s, when he gave a talk in Towers Residence hall a “bunch of rich, spoiled, over pampered children”. Well, he did not mind admitting several hundred of such “children” every year to the College of Basic Studies or General Studies today, where such “spoiled, over-pampered children” were paying full freight w/no financial aid. You do the math. Silber in 1989, said that the dormitories are not “love nests” and instituted the hated guest policy that stood for over a decade, if not 15 years. The same man who said that the residential halls are not “love nests” was able to negotiate for himself a “love nest for life” in Brookline, MA with the Board of Trustees as part of his compensation package. Let history judge Dr. John R. Silber. I am sure the Trustees will pass the hat and build something on campus in honor of him. They would not dare ask the alums to fund it, less they be disappointed and receive no donations. The unfortunate thing for BU is that there are probably two, if not three generational cohorts who attended BU under Silber who absolutely detested the man, and consequently their hatred of Silber is juxtaposed on BU, and giving BU money was in their minds = to giving Silber money, and they like me, wouldn’t lend him a buck to ride the “T” if he stood outside on Comm Ave w/a tin cup in his hand. I know this writing might be a little bitter, but the truth must be told as to why many alums feel they way they do about BU. Now that this chapter is over; maybe the healing can begin.

    • Wow, these comment brings back memories. I remember being at BU during the mid to late 1980s and I remember two events in Silber’s tenure where students nearly rioted on campus. The first was in Fall 1986 when Dr. Silber awarded Chief Buthlezi of the Inkatha Party of South Africa an Honorary Doctorate. Buthlezi as history has recorded was a stooge of the apartheid regime and a man with blood on his hands. Two thousand students filled Marsh Plaza while Buthlezi was being awarded his doctorate in the School of Law that morning. Afterwards, nearly two thousand students rushed the GSU where Silber was dining w/Buthlezi. Riot police, Boston police and storm troopers tried to keep the students from storming the elevators and a real clash was about to erupt in the GSU and Silber and his guest(s) escaped through on the elevator banks to a private lunch downtown. A real embarrassment to the Administration that was carried by local Boston media. Another riot nearly occurred in the GSU in Fall 1989 after when Silber passed the notorious Guest Policy. Phil Donohue came to campus to shoot a live episode of his daily talk show. The show was filmed in the GSU and several thousand students came to the filming. The students were so ticked off at Silber. The GSU was about to explode and the tension was so thick between the student body and Silber who was on stage, it was incredible. Students would have literally thrown things at Silber. The student body resentment of Silber was palatable. I had friends at other schools who were watching on tv and they commented on it. Silber was an accomplished man no doubt. He tripled major and double minored in college and graduate Summa Cum Laude/Phi Beta Kappa. But Silber was a throw back to the last quarter of the 19th century/first quarter of the 20th century. He was a conversative. I do not know how he has become a quote/unquote liberal? In the mid to late 1980s, BU was a regular on the speaking circuit for conservative ideologues. Bill Bennett, Bill Buckley (Silber invited him in January 1987) and numerous other hard liners and right wingers felt at home at BU. We used to call the President’s Host (the crew the walks around in Green Blazers at the Admissions Office on BSR) the Silber Youth Corp (a play on the Nazi Youth Corp). All the President’s Host’s that I knew, were far right of center, brown nosers who were looking to pad their resumes and they were the “President’s Hosts”. If Silber was a liberal; he sure was not your Berkeley, West Greenwich Village granola, organic soy milk, Scandanvian automobile driving liberal. He was something else. The man struck both fear and hatred in the student body.

  6. Robert Knox is not a 1974 graduate of The College of Arts and Sciences. There was no such place at BU in 1974. He attended The College of Liberal Arts. The name change from The College of Liberal Arts (CLA) to The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) did not take place until twenty years later. It is revisionist history to refer to CLA as CAS.

    CLA “73”

  7. Great leaders are surrounded by contoversy. Dr. Silber’s legacy is the growth and standing in the world of Boston University today. He came to BU at a time when the university truly needed a strong leader. His vision for our university has come to pass. Thank you John Silber. May you rest in pease knowing that a large part of your work has come to fruition.

  8. If it weren’t for the determination and tenacity of this man, BU would be that same
    mediocre, grimey excuse for a university.

  9. Jim from the 1980s

    It appears all of the complaints about Silber’s tenure at Boston University — again, a great school which he rebuilt — are still swirling around in the minds of angry lefties.

    Yes, Silber opposed political correctness on campus, something that helped changed my worldview. The campus brought in Democratic speakers, liberal speakers and the dreaded conservatives Mr. Buckley and Mr. Bennett. (Gasp!) The most famous speech I remember were two: Gary Hart (his speech was disrupted by CRs) and Scottie from Star Trek.

    Silber — let me remind you again — ran as a Democrat for governor, won the nomination and lost to Brahmin William Weld. But in doing so, Silber opposed a property tax reform that would have cut taxes. He was no silly right-winger or knee-jerk philosopher. This was a man whose administration had leftie Howard Zinn on the payroll.

    By the 1990s and 2000s, the campus looked transformed. His vision really hits its stride by 2005.

    BU stands taller today because of John R. Silber.


    • I guess you were one of those President’s Host that were previously described? I think Silber inherited Zinn as opposed to recruiting him on the faculty. Zinn had no problems at the least in the 1980’s expressing his contempt for Silber when interviewed by the FREEP and I think the feeling was mutual. If Silber’s vision took stride in 2005 which is 30 years after he arrived, it is probably due to the fact that he p.o.’ed some many alums that his reforms took 30 glacial years to be realized. If the alumni base was not so alienated from the school because of their disdain of Silber, maybe his vision would have been realized 15 years earlier. Bill Bennett, Bill Buckley, Chief Buthlezi and Meir Kahane (remember him) all passed through BU (gasp) in the 1980s. Yes, there were liberals like Abby Hoffman, Angela Davis, Barbara Jordan, Julian Bond and others who spoke as well. Jon Westling in the spring 1990 stated that Nelson Mandela was not a role model and that statement caused a huge fit and campus media firestorm. The Silber Administration was anything but liberal.

  10. As a BU student in the Silber era and current part-time professor, I would suggest those interested in Dr. Silber’s legacy read today’s letter to the Boston Globe. Retired Tufts provost Sol Gittleman offers an alternative view of Silber’s legacy.

    “Silber a transformer or image maker? Too soon to tell:

    …Did he “transform” Boston University? He certainly convinced everyone that he did. He might have been more interested in branding the institution — and himself.

    He insisted that BU was nothing until he arrived. Actually, he destroyed a world-class English department, drove professor Helen Vendler to Harvard, wrecked much of the humanities, and proclaimed that he had built the third great research university on the Charles River.

    But BU is still what it was: a good, second-tier private university…”

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  12. You know for an old reprobate who put his reputation as both a scholar & a teacher forth as his calling card, there seems to be powerfully few former students who have much to say about him. Plenty of folks who can and might comment on his administrative style or accomplishments or his pugnacious rhetoric and persona throughout his tenure at BU. Former students seem to be quite ‘thin on the ground’ in terms of their memories of him, which I think more than a bit strange. What of his former philosophy students? Any of them still extant and wanting to say something (anything) about him? I was coming up croppers on the Google, strangely enough. Just a very unusual man all around. A cranks crank, truly. But a more self satisfied arrogant soul you’re likely not to meet in this life too. Too articulate for TX, but too troublesome for Beantown.