Philosopher, educator and controversial President of Boston University, John Silber (born 1926) was an internationally recognized authority on ethics, education and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
John Silber was born August 15, 1926, in San Antonio, Texas, the second son of Paul G. Silber, a German-American architect, and Jewell Joslin Silber, an elementary school teacher. His family was economically comfortable until, like most all middle-class American families, the Great Depression of the 1930s depleted their earning sources. The Silbers were a proud family and the father refused to relinquish the practice of architecture despite the absence of demand brought upon by the depression. This under-employment made it necessary for the mother to teach grammar school in order to keep the family fed and clothed.
The atmosphere of the Silber household was one of gentility and culture. There were constant reminders not to allow their financial status to interfere with the diligent pursuit of learning. Bible verses were memorized, chores completed, books read, concerts attended, and school assignments mastered.
John was born with a right arm which ended in a stump right below his elbow. He first discovered a difference between himself and other children when he was four. The ridiculing attitude of his fellow students was a problem to him and led to constant fighting. Named "One-Armed Pete," young Silber discovered he could apply the stump squarely to the face of an opponent and be at an advantage.
He fought continuously until the fifth grade. Nora Ephron, in a 1977 Esquire magazine article, suggested that "In some sense, John Silber never stopped fighting on the playground."
John Silber received his undergraduate education at Trinity College (Texas), graduating summa cum laude in 1947 with majors in fine arts and philosophy. Following his undergraduate work he married Kathryn Underwood, a fellow student. Through his interest in philosophy and theology he considered the ministry as a career and attended Yale Divinity School for a year. An attraction to law led him to the University of Texas Law School, but also for only a year. He finally decided on the discipline of philosophy, the work of Immanuel Kant, in particular, and graduated from Yale with an M.A. degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. degree in 1956. The following year he returned to Texas where he was appointed assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.
At the University of Texas (U.T.) Silber quickly developed a reputation as a demanding teacher with liberal social views. Students reported his teaching style as Socratic as well as abrasive, consisting of relentless questions and uncomfortable confrontations. They found his expectations of them high with good grades difficult to obtain. Silber was, however, nominated by students for three outstanding-teacher awards. His reputation for liberal social views came from his service as chair of the Texas Society to Abolish Capital Punishment and his outspoken views in favor of racial integration. He was promoted to professor and named chairperson in 1962 and became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1967. By 1970 Silber had crossed swords with the University of Texas' biggest booster and chair of the board of regents, Frank C. Irwin, Jr. Ostensibly the conflict was over a proposal to split the college into two smaller schools, but TIME magazine reported Silber became "a target because of his liberalism, aggressiveness, and potential candidacy for the U.T. presidency." The university dismissed him from his position as dean.
Meanwhile, a new academic opportunity was developing in Massachusetts. Boston University is located directly across the Charles River from and overshadowed by Harvard and M.I.T. It had been under pressure from emerging institutions such as the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern which could undercut the cost of private education. A Methodist institution, B.U.'s most famous graduate was Martin Luther King, Jr., from the school of theology. Early in 1970 Arland Christ-Janer resigned as president of the school. Boston University needed credible leadership to advance its strength and reputation. A 21-member search committee, following several months of deliberation and nonconclusive actions, asked Silber to come to Boston for an interview. Silber's manner was blunt, arrogant, and cold in the interview process; he called the B.U. campus "the ugliest damned place he'd ever seen." Yet, he mesmerized the committee with his vision for the university, especially for the improvement of undergraduate education. He set conditions related to faculty hiring and personal manipulation of the endowment, to which there was agreement. Silber was hired.
In January 1971 John Silber began his first year as president of Boston University. The trustees gave him money to begin recruiting outstanding faculty from throughout the country. He dove into public life, making speeches and attending public events. An article in Esquire described his speaking style as similar to that of a Southern evangelist. The Texas liberal began to sound like a Massachusetts conservative.
Among his early conflicts as president was the row with his faculty over the hiring of new faculty. The new faculty members he was authorized to recruit were brought in with minimal consultation of the departmental chairpersons. There was a general feeling among other faculty that Silber was simply an autocrat. Silber fared even worse with students. In early 1972 he called in the police to break up a demonstration opposing the restoration of armed forces recruitment on campus. Later that year his residence was destroyed by fire, and Silber's family lost all their personal belongings.
Among Silber's recruits to the Boston University faculty were the author Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel, writer and concentration camp survivor. Silber possessed special sensitivity toward Jewish people, which was heightened while he was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bonn, West Germany. It was there he learned his father's side of the family was Jewish and that his aunt had been killed at Auschwitz. His father had never said anything about it.
The 1970s marked a period of constant tension at Boston University. The president accused the faculty of mediocrity and the students of fostering anarchy, and they, in turn, accused him of tyrannical rule. Essentially, in response to the Silber administration, the faculty organized a union in 1974 and the following year voted to affiliate with the American Association of University Professors. The administration would not negotiate with the union, and in 1976 the refusal was challenged in a lawsuit. Two-thirds of the faculty and deans demanded the board of trustees fire Silber. The board refused. In 1978 the courts decided in favor of the AAUP position and Boston University was forced to negotiate. The faculty conducted a brief strike in 1979 which was followed by a clerical workers' walkout in which several faculty members refused to cross the picket line. Silber charged five of these faculty members with negligence and moved to have them disciplined. At that point faculty members throughout Boston signed a petition to have Silber removed. In 1984 the courts ruled that the local AAUP chapter could not engage in collective bargaining.
Silber's popularity and support rose during the 1980s. Boston University had improved its campus, vastly increased its endowment, and attracted a blue-chip faculty. His support among alumni and friends of the university was high, as evidenced by financial and other support given to B.U. Silber was a welcomed guest at the White House during both the Reagan and Bush administrations and they, in turn, were commencement speakers and recipients of Boston University honors.
John Silber made a foray into politics by exploring the possibility of candidacy for governor of Massachusetts. He took a leave of absence from the university and formed a political organization. This followed on the heels of Boston University's successful assumption of the responsibility for the operation of the Chelsea, Massachusetts, school system. Polls showed Silber popular among Massachusetts voters, especially in light of the unpopularity of Governor Michael Dukakis.
Silber swept to victory in the 1990 Democratic primary but lost the election by about 77,000 votes (out of more than 2.2 million cast) to William Weld, a 46-year-old Republican lawyer. Silber resigned his post as president of Boston University in 1995 to be appointed as the school's first Chancellor. As Chancellor, Silber served in an advisory capacity and focused on venture capital operations. Even though Weld had defeated Silber in 1990, the Democratic governor appointed Silber to head the state's Board of Education in 1996.
Silber authored scholarly works on Kant including: The Ethical Significance of Kant's Religion, Procedural Formalism in Kant's Ethics and The Natural Good and the Moral Good in Kant's Ethics. In 1989 Harper published Silber's Straight Shooting: What's Wrong with American and How to Fit It. A German edition of Straight Shooting was published in 1992, and a Japanese edition was published in 1993.
Except for the popular press there is little published material on John Silber. One of the best personality profiles of Silber is Helen Epstein, "Crusader on the Charles," in the New York Times Magazine (April 23, 1989). □