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The Autocrat of Boston University

John Silber was one of the most important college presidents of the last century, but he was not easy to work with.


Snapshots of My Father, John Silber by Rachel Silber Devlin, Peter E. Randall Publisher, 320 pages.

John Silber (1926–2012), the long-serving president of Boston University, had a large staff, including about eight or nine young women who served as secretaries and assistants. One day Silber unexpectedly walked in while they were enjoying a birthday cake. Offered a slice, he exploded, “That’s dogfood!” and stormed out.  


This was daily life in Silber’s domain. People either walked on eggshells or developed a special layer of indifference based on their understanding that his rudeness and anger, though inveterate, were also transitory. He might attack someone with the verbal equivalent of a saber and moments later act as though nothing had happened, then stroll down the hall whistling a happy tune. He whistled well.

I worked in his administration from 1987 to 2002, though to be precise I worked for his provost, Jon Westling, who became his successor as president in 1996 when Silber elevated himself to the newly invented position of chancellor. I was associate provost and Westling’s chief of staff. This meant that I was in meetings with Silber at least once a week for many of those years and that I worked on letters and reports for him. I repeatedly declined the opportunity to work for him directly because I didn’t care for more of his attention than I already had.  

But this is a book review, not a memoir. I place myself in the story only to establish my perspective. I have mixed views of the man. He was a forceful advocate for important ideas and an energetic and capable college president. But he was also an impulsive and irascible character who trusted his own judgment far too much. And he was mean—frequently and unnecessarily—though I took care to stand outside the radius in which the porcupine became agitated.  

Silber had five daughters and a son. I met a few of them on social occasions but had no relationship with them. Hence Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, a memoir by Silber’s eldest daughter, Rachel Silber Devlin, was largely a revelation to me. Rachel found a warmth in the man she calls “pa” or “JRS” that was not easily visible from his offices at 147 Bay State Road. It is not that she was unaware of his snappishness and occasional cruelty, but she knew his softer side, too.

This makes Snapshots a valuable source for anyone who is determined to tell a fuller story of the life, accomplishments, and failures of the person who is among the most famous college presidents of the last century. The book is illustrated with about a hundred pages of photographs. Rachel’s strength as memoirist is her deep knowledge of Silber’s whole family. More than half of the book describes the people who shaped this ambitious man from childhood on. Much of the remainder of the book, however, inadvertently shows how Rachel was flimflammed by Silber’s exaggerated view of his own importance and the constant parade of celebrities on the scene. Then she pulls herself up in the last chapters by recounting Silber’s final years of disappointment, internal exile, physical decline, and death.  


Let’s start with the flimflammery. Silber was acutely aware that to elevate Boston University in public esteem he needed to put on a show. From his office windows he looked across the Charles River to the campus of MIT and, beyond that, to some of Harvard’s campus. The attempt to establish BU as a serious academic institution began with revitalizing the faculty and the curriculum, but it would take decades for those sorts of changes to transform the university’s reputation. What he needed in the meantime was showmanship.

A key part of that was showcasing high-profile figures. Rachel shows she understood the game even as she denies it:  

When recruiting outstanding professors, including Nobel laureates, they were never mere ornaments to boost the prestige of Boston University. JRS was always looking for esteemed prospective faculty members who would not only continue their research or writing, but would also delight in their interactions with students and be prepared to enthusiastically teach students and nurture their intellectual growth. 

She cites as examples the Nobel physicist Sheldon Glashow, Saul Bellow, and Elie Wiesel. Glashow spent almost all his time “across the river.” Bellow, pried loose from the University of Chicago at the tail end of his career, went through the motions but was certainly not expected to do any heavy lifting. Wiesel was an expensively purchased name who flew in from New York now and then to meet a handful of carefully selected students and who gave a public lecture once or twice a year. This is not to cast aspersions on them or others who were similarly placed, but it would be far more accurate to say that they were indeed ornaments, and not just to the university but also to Silber’s self-esteem. They validated his sense of grandeur. 

If Boston University was a sandbox next to the great institutions in Cambridge, at least it could be an impressive sandbox: the Sahara of all sandboxes. And Silber reveled in his achievement. As Rachel observes:

Elie [Wiesel] also gave a series of lectures at Boston University that were open to the public. My dad attended these lectures and introduced Elie at the first one each fall. Pop enjoyed the challenge of thinking of something new to say about him year after year. 

Rachel’s account of these events is dead-on accurate. “There was a reverence for Elie that was highly emotional.” But she plainly missed the considerable eye-rolling that also accompanied Wiesel’s tired repetition of essentially the same talk about his never forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

This is not to say that Silber regarded Wiesel as primarily a prop. He esteemed him highly. Rachel records that he sculpted a bas-relief of Wiesel in profile:  “It is one of Pop’s finest works as an artist…a brilliant tribute to his friend Elie.”  

Silber also had strong interests in architecture, music, theater, sculpture, photography, and literature. His efforts to embody these pursuits in Boston University came with varying levels of success. He managed to preserve the fine old brownstones on campus and avoid puncturing the campus with flashy postmodern novelties, but otherwise presided over a building boom of red brick utilitarian structures. He recruited the former Met opera soprano Phyllis Curtin as dean of the School for the Arts. He established a professional theater troupe as a counterpoint to the avant-garde productions at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. He cultivated poets such as Derek Walcott and Geoffrey Hill. And he became the patron of a Chilean sculptor, Sergio Castillo, three of whose massive abstract works in metal impose themselves insistently on campus spaces.

Castillo, Rachel tells us, was the teacher of Silber’s daughter Ruth when she was studying in Spain, which led to his commissions at BU: a memorial of Martin Luther King Jr., an alumnus of the school, as well as the aptly named “Explosion” in front of the Science Center. Supposedly Castillo was inspired by collisions of subatomic particles, but perhaps he also understood something about his benefactor. 

Rachel doesn’t shy from bringing up controversies in Silber’s life and tenure. She serves as his apologist, but not in the spirit of concealing his faults. Many of us saw his ferocity in action nearly every day but Rachel apparently saw it only now and then:

On a few rare occasions, I saw him harangue one of his subordinates, raising his voice and looking ferocious and angry. We kids also saw him do this to each other time and again. To see him yelling like that was demoralizing for everyone concerned. Afterwards, Pop would work things out, and feel all was forgiven, but, no, it wasn’t. If you were ever on the receiving end of one of those diatribes you would not soon forget it, and you would hold it against him, however charming he might be afterwards.

She wishes “he could have been his amiable, relaxed self more of the time.” It would have been news to a fairly large portion of the Boston University community that Silber had an “amiable, relaxed self,” but indeed he did. This brings up an aspect of Silber that Rachel misses almost entirely: his gullibility. I say “almost” because she runs smack into it near the end of the book in a chapter titled “Shipwreck.” In 2002, in Rachel’s telling, President Westling “unexpectedly resigned,” leaving Silber to search for a new leader for the university.  That’s not how I would tell the story, but for the moment let’s stick with Rachel’s account. As she puts it, Silber “favored one of the candidates, Daniel Goldin, a former NASA administrator.” He had “high hopes for Goldin” and persuaded the BU board to skip over the usual vetting and approve his appointment almost immediately.  

But it turned out, says Rachel, Goldin “seemed lacking in culture,” “unprepared and awkward,” and a week before he was to assume office, Goldin issued “his list of planned, massive firings.” He was ready at a stroke to demolish the entire administration that Silber has spent over thirty years building. Silber convened an emergency meeting of the board and got them to rescind Goldin’s appointment at the reported cost of $1.5 million. (The actual figure was much higher.)  It also cost Silber the confidence of the board, which quickly stripped Silber of his title, his office, and his influence.

As Rachel sees it, by expediting Goldin’s appointment, “Pop” thought he was helping to usher in a new era of his own style, but he had misread Goldin. That much is true, but Rachel apparently never glimpsed some deeper parts of the intrigue. Westling’s “unexpected” resignation was engineered by Silber, who after September 11 was eager to propel the university into more aggressive public positions. Goldin was the favored candidate of the university’s Washington lobbyist, who promised that the man would fit perfectly with Silber’s larger plans. The national search that might well have turned up highly qualified candidates and given the university community the opportunity to compare and assess them was aborted. That spared Silber the trouble of convincing the faculty that Goldin would be a worthy president. By contrast, the selection of Westling as Silber’s successor in 1996 had taken nearly eight months.  

Those of us not in the loop, of course, looked up Goldin’s record at NASA, where he was chiefly known for presiding over an era (1992–2001) of budget cuts and “faster, cheaper, better” rocket launches that resulted in some famous disasters. The 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere after the agency failed to correct an error pointed out by two of its own engineers. Later that year, another Mars mission failed when the Mars Polar Lander crashed, and two Deep Space probes aimed at Mars also disappeared without a trace. It was a record that might reasonably raise questions about the competence of the chief administrator, but it apparently didn’t bother Silber. Why not?

This goes to the question of Silber’s gullibility. As a man tigerishly alert to any hint of weakness in his opponents and assiduous in calling out the lapses of his subordinates, Silber was an easy mark for any conman who could boldly lie to his face.  It was as though Silber couldn’t imagine the existence of such a thing as audacious dishonesty.  

As a result, his office had a perpetual parade passing through of drunkards, thieves, and schemers of all sorts for whom he felt a keen affinity. Most of his top administrators were worldly wise and had to devise ways to move the hustlers out the door, but it was far from easy. And in some cases, Silber succeeded in nesting them somewhere in the bureaucracy or even getting them appointed to the faculty. 

Perhaps the most notorious case was a convicted rapist, Benjamin LaGuer, who at the time was serving a life sentence for raping an elderly woman. LaGuer had earned a masters degree in a prison program run by the university and had caught Silber’s eye. He convinced Silber he was innocent and Silber waged a multi-year public campaign for his release—until DNA evidence reconfirmed LaGuer’s guilt. He died in prison. 

Silber’s gullibility connects with another doubtful aspect of his character, his readiness to cut deals when opportunities arose. Perhaps this is understandable. A university or an institution in Boston, or in Massachusetts for that matter, either has the clout to tell its political opponents to get out of the way—think Harvard—or it has to form alliances with those who can “make things happen.” Silber struck up alliances with two Boston mayors, Kevin White and Tom Menino, and became fast friends with the president of the Massachusetts Senate, Billy Bulger. He was close to Ted Kennedy as well. What came of these alliances is not for me to say. But I will say that Silber took pride that in them. It is not every former philosophy professor who could hold his own in such company.

Rachel, forgivably, is silent on these matters. But she is open about Silber’s political ambitions, which dated back to his time as dean at the University of Texas Austin. Silber more than half expected to be appointed by Reagan as secretary of education and was disappointed when the position went to his former student and protégé Bill Bennett. His high point in climbing the slippery pole to a national role was his appointment in 1983 to Reagan’s National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, chaired by Henry Kissinger. This fed Silber’s idea of himself as a player on the world stage—an idea that had thin support.

Rachel gives a fair account of Silber’s almost successful run for governor of Massachusetts in 1990, in which Silber scrambled to the top in the Democratic primary and was running close to his Republican opponent, Bill Weld, until the final days of the campaign. What happened was a classic case of Silber’s explosive temper getting the better of him. He gave in to the repeated taunting of a well-loved TV anchor, Natalie Jacobson, and displayed his ire on camera. The TV station held the footage until a week before the election and then gave it to the Weld campaign, which ran it incessantly. Silber really had no one to blame but himself.

Why was Silber so often his own worst enemy? I give Rachel credit for tackling what may be an unfathomable question. She addresses some of the conjectures that are often advanced. Was Silber’s personality overcompensation for his birth defect? (His right arm ended at the elbow.) Was he raised in adversity during the Depression? Rachel makes clear that Silber was unhindered and perhaps even empowered by his birth defect. If it had psychological significance, it was only that he learned early on not to let impediments get in the way of worthy goals. As for his upbringing, he was fortunate in having good, strong parents and grandparents, a wonderful older brother, and an admirable collection of other relatives. Rachel devotes a short chapter to each, and this part of the book is colorful and moving.

Rachel was Silber’s first-born daughter but his second child after his son David. Rachel and David were close, and he makes appearances all through the book until his death from complications of AIDS. Silber and his family took care of David at home until the very end in December 1994, and this is one place where Silber’s compassion and humanity show through. His son’s death took something irretrievable out of him. Rachel also gives a moving account of the death of her mother Kathryn in 2005, and Silber’s final years devoted to writing about architecture and philosophy. He died in 2012.  

Rachel was prompted to write this book because John Silber remains a figure to be reckoned with. I am reviewing it for the same reason, and before saying anything more, I must reemphasize that Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, is by far the best account of the man I have seen.  Every couple of years an ambitious, usually young, writer contacts me to say that he is working on a full-scale biography of the man, and can I help? And my answer is always no. I don’t command most of the details and I don’t have my own sense sorted out of how to balance my admiration for Silber with my dislike of him. I won’t resolve that here either, but I’ll say a little about both, and I will begin by applauding Rachel for finding her own convincing way of uniting his contraries. 

As for admiration, John Silber was a Last of the Mohicans figure. He stood uncompromisingly for the ideals of a university founded on the pursuit of intellectual excellence and its necessary place in advancing civilization. For my part, I’d prefer to say “Western civilization,” but Silber was a Kantian who held unswervingly to universals. For him, civilization was one thing, and its “Western” character was a historical accident. In any case, his vision of the university was capacious. No subject was ruled beyond rational inquiry, and he was as eager to advance the arts and the humanities as he was the hard sciences, and eager as well to advance serious education (not training) in practical fields such as nursing, journalism, teacher preparation, medicine, dentistry, law, the ministry, and engineering.  

I can overhear some readers saying, “Of course. That’s just the run of degree-beating subjects at any old university.” But no, in higher education during Silber’s time and ours, every one of these subjects has been tainted or in some cases thoroughly corrupted by illiberal ideologies. Silber would say simply “ideology,” since he saw all ideology as illiberal.  

I don’t want to branch off into definitions, but the key distinction between education and ideology is the difference between knowledge and power. Education is pursuing knowledge by rational means to understand the world. Ideology is the manipulation of knowledge for political purposes. Professors often intentionally conflate the two in order to entice students into their camp. 

Silber pushed as hard as he possibly could for a university founded on rigorous standards of inquiry. He was in his own politics a Lyndon Johnson–style Great Society liberal, but on campus he was a Robert Maynard Hutchins philosopher king, adamant that no political program should play a role in making academic appointments or curricular decisions.  

And he had the gumption and force of personality to enact this program at a university that for many years resisted him every inch of the way. The sharp division between Silber’s political ideals and his educational persona led to the oddity that almost all of his staff were conservatives who championed his commitment to educational standards against the rising tide of political correctness, but off-campus Silber championed big government social welfare programs.

Silber’s warlike soul on campus and his sheer determination to lead a counterrevolution in American higher education created a remarkable epoch at Boston University. He made the campus a magnet for talented faculty members who felt stifled at places where they had to sequester their views. He relished arguing with such people in the spirit that they would rise to the occasion. He virtually eliminated the expectation that tenure would inevitably follow six years of full-time faculty appointment. Candidates genuinely had to prove themselves both as scholars and teachers. This meant the university was a tense place for junior faculty but it also meant that it was creatively alive.  

It would be too much to expect that a man who prided himself on inspiring a “tremble factor” in those around him would also have the tenderness of an Atticus Finch. Silber was a crustacean, not a shark. He aimed to keep people on their toes, not to devour them. He sought to build a great university where he originally found a sleepy third-tier institution. Measured by how far as president he took BU from 1971 to 1996, he was an astonishing success. Measured by the difference between BU’s tough-minded independence and the character of other colleges and universities, BU was the great exception to the radical decadence that descended on most of American higher education. Measured by the man’s warmth and hospitality…well, let us accept Rachel’s verdict on that. He hid those qualities well.


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