Colossus or Megalomaniac, Boston University's John Silber Keeps His Campus in Turmoil

UPDATED 06/02/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

Some 4,300 graduates at Boston University's 107th commencement last week ended their college careers as they had lived them, under a gathering storm. This time, though, the tempest threatened from the heavens, not from the modest, book-cluttered office of university President John Silber. For Silber, in fact, the day was a tranquil one—probably one of the few since the transplanted Texan first came to Boston nine years ago to take charge of the nation's fifth largest private university (current enrollment: more than 26,000). Among faculty members and students alike, opinion is bitterly divided as to whether Silber is a colossus who has rescued BU from mediocrity or a megalomaniac who has shattered its spirit. He is far and away the most controversial college executive in the country today. In the intellectual combat zone over which he presides, there is little neutral ground.

"Silber is absolutely brilliant," says Elie Wiesel, the internationally known authority on Judaica who has been Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at BU since 1976. "He is a strong man who knows what he wants—excellence." His opponents, on the other hand, charge Silber with instituting a reign of terror, dismissing faculty members arbitrarily and punishing tenured critics by denying them raises. Political scientist Howard Zinn likens the president to a Machiavellian tyrant. "He does not care how many heads roll or moral sensibilities are injured," claims Zinn. "He's hurt a lot of people and created a disastrous situation. It's the atmosphere of a banana republic."

Silber, for his part, seems as unaffected by blame as by praise. He attributes the conflicts that have broken out around him to the tension that arises "when a university comfortable at a B grade begins to emerge as a major institution of the first rank." Whatever the reason, the level of debate has been far from Olympian. At one point, according to a faculty member, Silber linked Zinn to an attempted fire bombing of the president's office 10 years ago. Another time Silber himself was the victim of a rumor that he had stooped to stealing university silverware. All the charges proved baseless, and apologies were made.

Far from subsiding, the din of battle has risen. Twice in the past five years, BU's faculty assembly has voted in favor of Silber's dismissal. This spring a poll of 4,600 students revealed that 53 percent agreed. Yet the implacable president shows no sign of yielding, despite a flurry of resignations among the university's vice-presidents, trustees, professors and deans. The faculty went on strike for the first time in BU history last year over ratification of a union contract. Last November the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union charged the university with conspicuous violations of academic freedom and civil liberties.

Silber, 53, discounts such problems with cool self-assurance, his square jaw set, his blue eyes flashing. Not even his enemies deny his charisma. "When Silber enters a room," a colleague once observed, "he shakes the pictures on the wall." Amateur psychologists suggest his aggressiveness is compensation for a congenital handicap: a stunted right arm ending in what he calls an "embryonic bud" of a hand. Silber has never sought to hide the deformity; on the contrary, his suits are tailored with an elbow-length cuff that leaves the hand exposed and surprisingly functional. "When he flips that arm through a stack of papers," says a veteran Boston reporter, "even the best among us are riveted."

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Silber was about 4 years old, he says, when he realized he wasn't like everybody else. One day he and some friends decided to compare hands. "Everyone noticed I had only one," he says. "I was perplexed." Rushing home, he asked his mother whether his arm would grow out. "It was clear she was upset," he recalls. "She told me it wouldn't, but that I could still do whatever I wanted. She and my father held their breath whenever I climbed trees, but they thought it was better to let me figure out how to do things on my own. They were right." Still, they were dismayed by the boy's penchant for fighting. "A left jab is the best single boxing technique," says Silber. "While the other guy would be swinging wildly, I'd just sit there and pop him. If we got into a clinch, I'd hit him with the point of that bone and just practically kill him."

Young John, however, was not brought up to be a hellion. His father was a German immigrant architect who enjoyed a thriving practice until the Depression. His mother was a schoolteacher who even in reduced circumstances insisted on raising John and his older brother, Paul (now an engineer in San Antonio), in an atmosphere of unswerving gentility. Silber dutifully memorized Bible verses for recitation at his Presbyterian Sunday school and was diligent in his day-to-day school-work. "I liked my teachers," he says simply. "The key to teaching is motivation—students wishing to please their instructors."

Summa cum laude in fine arts and philosophy at Trinity University in San Antonio, Silber sculpted, played cornet and coached the debating team. At about this time he met Kathryn Underwood. "She and I were debate partners," he recalls. "I had several, and when it came to refutations I used to list the points that I wanted my partner to make. I did that just once with Kathryn. I handed the list to her, and she handed it back and said, 'I know how to do this.' " Impressed, Silber married her after his graduation in 1947.

Deciding what to do next was a problem. "From my Presbyterian upbringing," says Silber, "I had a feeling my life was special—that we were on earth to accomplish something." Confronted with a range of alternatives, he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale, studied music at Northwestern and attended both Yale Divinity School and the University of Texas Law School. Settling in Austin as a philosophy instructor at the university, he was named department chairman in 1961 and dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences six years later.

Though respected at Texas, Silber was not always loved. In class he favored the Socratic method of relentless cross-questioning and didn't mind if he made students squirm. "He was so cruel that we literally quaked in our shoes," one former student said later. "People cried in class." To another student's accusation that his approach was little more than "an intellectually respectable way of browbeating people," Silber replied simply, "False. My method is dramatic. It gets under the skin."

Despite his abrasiveness, Silber was nominated by students for three outstanding-teacher awards. Earlier he had acquired a reputation as a spirited liberal activist for his outspoken defense of a young black woman denied a chance to sing in a student opera; later he spearheaded a statewide drive in opposition to capital punishment. Then, in 1970, he was fired by the university's conservative board of regents in a widely noted political purge. Within weeks he had become a leading candidate for BU's vacant presidency.

Founded in 1839, Boston University was fighting for survival at the start of the '70s. Overshadowed academically by neighboring Harvard and MIT, BU was under increasing pressure from the rapidly expanding University of Massachusetts, which could offer a comparable education at a fraction of the cost. Visiting BU's sprawling urban campus, Silber judged it "intensely unattractive," and later likened himself to a surgeon called in to rescue a dying patient. His hosts were startled by his bluntness, but also impressed. "He will pick us up and throw us," explained a student member of the Presidential Search Committee, "and I'm afraid we need to be picked up and thrown." She also predicted that he would cause rioting within 10 days of his appointment. "Why?" asked Silber. "Because you lack compassion," she told him.

By his own accounting, Silber has been a stunning success at BU. He claims credit for balancing the university's budget, reversing a three-year decline in enrollment and stimulating a dramatic influx of outstanding teachers, deans and administrators. Before his arrival, says Silber, both students and faculty were afflicted with what he calls the Groucho Marx syndrome. That is, he explains, "They held themselves of little repute by virtue of being accepted here. Now no one is considered for a position here unless he or she is one of the ablest in the country, and we have raised the standards for tenure. People have stopped being embarrassed when they get it."

Undeniably, for better or worse, Silber has fostered an atmosphere of tension on the BU campus—one in which he thrives but many others do not. "There's been no stability here," complains Prof. Lawrence Wortzel of the university's School of Management, appalled by the turnover among provosts and deans. "You can't run a university when the administrators don't last as long as the students." Silber's campus critics, who are legion, say that the president himself is the destabilizer; his defenders, that he is the glue binding a fractious university together. If Silber were to leave, Arthur Metcalf, chairman of the BU trustees, has maintained, the university "would sink back into the academic leperdom it would deserve." Professor Wortzel demurs. "I'd be surprised if you could find 10 people at BU's main campus who would say 'I'm staying here because of John Silber,' " he says. "I think you could find 500 who would say they're staying in spite of him."

Numbers alone, however, have never shaken Silber's belief in his rightness. Several years ago he gave the Marines permission to recruit on campus despite widespread opposition among students and faculty. When 150 young people blocked a building entrance in retaliation, he warned them to leave, then called in police. "Boston University," he says, "has resisted some of the most virulent trends of our time. It has not allowed ideologues from the left or right to shut down the campus and deny freedom of speech. We have never canceled a lecture or refused to allow someone to come here. If a building is occupied, that is criminal trespass."

Girding daily for such struggles, Silber awakens at 6:30 a.m. in BU's three-story French Renaissance presidential mansion and begins a brisk regimen of stretching and sit-ups. "I run in place for a while and then ride the stupid stationary bicycle," he says. "I get my heartbeat up to 120 and keep it there for at least 10 minutes." Thus primed, he works an average of 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Breakfast, though, is reserved for Kathryn and the two Silber daughters living at home: Ruth, 15, and Caroline, 13. (The Silbers also have five older children: David, 27, a New York actor; Rachel, 25, married and the mother of two children; Judith, 23, a BU graduate student in music; Alexandra, 21, a senior at Amherst; and Martha, 19, a sophomore at Trinity University.) When, infrequently, he yields to the urge to get away, it is to Squam Lake in New Hampshire for swimming and sailing, or to New York for theater, concerts and museums. He is not, in the final analysis, a man who gets much pleasure from taking life easy or who willingly tolerates people who do. "If you say, 'On occasion, Silber can be moved to anger,' I can't deny it," he says. "Some things are properly addressed with anger. Occasionally I am profane and obscene. I burn. It's the other side of the coin to getting things done."

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