John Silber, university president

JohnSilber
JohnSilber
Posted: September 29, 2012

BOSTON - John Silber, 86, the sharp-tongued, pugnacious public intellectual who transformed Boston University during a quarter-century as president, died Thursday at his Brookline home, university spokesman Colin Riley said.

Dr. Silber had been suffering from liver ailments recently, Riley said.

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

Erudite and combative, he was an outspoken critic of political correctness, communism, and popular culture, but considered himself a liberal on many issues. He was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts in 1990, but was narrowly defeated by Republican William Weld - a loss many blamed on a television interview shortly before the election during which he snapped at a reporter who asked him about his weaknesses. He remained president until 1996, and was university chancellor from 1996 until 2003.

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

But his chances of another run for governor were undermined by lingering controversy over the sale of a BU-controlled company that resulted in a $387,000 payment to Dr. Silber. A state investigation found no criminal wrongdoing but contradicted Dr. Silber's claims that he had never received money from the sale.

Dr. Silber was born in San Antonio with a deformed right arm truncated below the elbow. He rejected suggestions his confrontational personality was somehow a compensation for his handicap.

At BU he was known for extravagant parties and a short temper but also had huge ambitions for the school. His presidency saw BU's endowment increase from $18.8 million to $450 million, its square footage double, and the recruitment of prominent faculty, including Nobel Prize winners Elie Wiesel, poet Derek Walcott, and novelist Saul Bellow.

He built a reputation as a conservative on academic and social issues by clashing with university faculty over what he called academic "fads" that compromised traditional learning.

He publicly debated left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky over communism in Central America, and faced criticism for refusing to include "sexual orientation" in the university's official nondiscrimination policy.

But he sometimes bristled at the conservative label, noting he had worked against the death penalty and for integration during his early academic career at the University of Texas.

Dr. Silber received his undergraduate degree from Trinity University and his doctorate from Yale. His wife, Kathryn, died in 2005. They had six daughters and two sons. One of them, David, died in 1995.

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