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Former BU President John Silber Dies At 86

John Silber on the Boston University Bridge in July 1976 (Courtesy of Boston University)

John Silber on the Boston University Bridge in July 1976 (Courtesy of Boston University)

John Silber, a controversial and critical figure in Massachusetts politics and academia who ran Boston University for 25 years, died Thursday. He was 86.

During Silber’s tenure, BU began the Huntington Theatre Company, brought Nobel Prize winner Elie Weisel to the faculty, and increased its endowment by over 23 times.

But it was Silber’s frank manner, provocative views and what some called “autocratic rule” at the university that earned him the most renown. Many believe that his famous “Silber shockers” cost Silber the governship in 1990.


  • John Westling, president of Boston University, 1996-2002
  • Marjorie Clapprood, Silber’s running mate during the 1990 gubernatorial race


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  • 65noname

    This was a horrible, horrible white wash of history.  Instead of declaiming about how “honest” silber was you could have actually discussed some of his views, such as his incredible homphobia.  Silber actually attempted to ban a Gay And straight student at BU’s high school academy.  He also advocated that colleges have the right to discriminateagainst gay people and claaimed that gay people were gay by choice or because they had been “seduced” by gay people and gay organizations were existed for the purpose of  recriuting straight people into being gay.

    He also was a virulent union buster and couldn’t tolerate anyone who disagreed with him, attempting to fire people such Howard Zinn for supporting clerical workers. His idea of “reforming academia was to purge the academy of anyone who disagred with him.

    He opposed the democratization of south africa and Mandela.  He supported military juntas in latin america.  He gave an honoray degree to the dictator of Salvador, durate, decribed by the US ambassadorto salvador as a “CIA asset” while the dictator of salvador. 

    Typically, you didn’t bother to give voice to opinions that differed from your sentimentlized, dishonest piece.  That is espically ironic because when government radio did a piece on Howard Zinn’s death (silber dedicated his career to firing Zinn because of his political views) it went out of its way to present the racist right wing extremist,  David Horowitz’s vile smears of  Zinn.

    You go, govenrment radio!!!! Where you hear stuff that you can’t hear anywhere else.

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      There are things you talk about on the day someone dies, and there are things you talk about a few days later. Grow up.

      • 65noname

        +I am grown up.  These guys attempted to sentimentalize a morally corrupt person who used his power against others in a vicous manner.  And it is the radio network that did far worse to Howard Zinn, a far worthier person, when he died.

        • Crozes999

          Yeah, Howard Zinn was worthy.  Worthy of seducing many of his undergrad TAs.  He was a scumbag.

      • J__o__h__n

        I disagree.  His homophobia is a permanent stain on his character and should have been a part of the discussion.  It shouldn’t have dominated the discussion or negated his accomplishments, but it should have been noted.  (I didn’t post anything that day but thought is should have been mentioned on air.)

      • Anthony

        couldn’t have said it better, Adam. 

        – Anthony

    • Crozes999

      Howard Zinn was a piece of Marxist trash.   Did you ever actually take any of the so-called classes that he conducted?  Just an awful joke.  The easiest “A” at BU in the early 80s, which is why everybody took him.  He made a mockery of academia and Silber called him out. 

  • John

    Jon Westling was probably the only university president with just a bachelors degree at the time.   Only John Silber would hand-pick a man so unqualified to lead the fourth largest private university in the nation.

  • Kathy

    Provocative views is soft pedaling someone who was a rampant homophobe.

    • Crozes999

      Before John Silber came to BU it was a joke, a commuter school.  That’s a simple fact. 

      • http://dearjubilee.com/ Joyce Miller

         That is simply not true. I entered BU as a freshman in 1959. I left there after I graduated in 1963 to go to Bryn Mawr College as a graduate student in history. I left Bryn Mawr, with a PhD, in 1967, and went back to Boston University to teach.  Arland Chirst-Janer was president from 1967 to 1970.

        As the chair of the History department at Bryn Mawr said to me: “Boston University taught you well.” And it did. I went through to my PhD at Bryn Mawr in three years, including a summer in France researching the person and times I wrote about.  That dissertation is still being cited in new books today.

        John Silber was president from 1971 to 1996. He may have done well by BU  in his later years, but he did not impress me at the time, and I know many BU people, former students and professors as well as all the presidents, who did much more for BU than Silber did.

        Boston University has a very good reputation going back to its founding. It was not a commuter school when I went there: most students lived on campus or in near apartments. I am saddened to see how expensive it is today. But high prices for colleges and universities seem to be nationwide.

        Howard Case, the president from 1951 to 1967 was highly recognized for the changes he made at BU. He expanded the university, building new dormitories, established the School for the Arts, the College of Engineering, and the Metropolitan College. He created the African Studies Program in 1953, and in that same year, he brought Howard Thurman to BU to be Dean of Marsh Chapel. Thurman was an outstanding theologian and his sermons were incredible: he was very easy to listen to. He was also highly regarded world wide for the work he did, and he is still highly regarded today.

        In addition to all this, Dr. Case and his wife started a University at Home program for undergraduates to visit them in their home and discuss contemporary issues.

        Other great presidents at BU include Daniel Marsh who was president from 1926 to 1951, the president that built the new campus a previous president had envisioned. He also incorporated Sargent College into the University, and founded the School of Social Work, the School of Nursing, the School of Public Relations (now the College of Communication), and the General College. And, above all, he guided the University through severe financial stringency during the Depression and during the Second World War.

        The president before Marsh was the man who purchased the land between the Charles River and Commonwealth Avenue hoping to establish a permanent campus for the BU colleges that were then scattered throughout Boston. He wasn’t able to deliver on the permanent college campus, but Marsh and Case did.

        BU was never Harvard, and yes, there were always people to knock BU for not being  a Harvard kind of university. But BU was an excellent university when I went to it in the 50s and 60s, and it is still an excellent university. Going through the various presidents and their tenures, you can see how BU got to be what it is today. Not the result of one president, but the growing result of all the   different leaders and presidents that this university had through the years. That is how all great universities grow and thrive.

  • Crozes999

    My dad went to Harvard.  When I told hin that I wanted to go to BU in 1979 he laughed at me and asked why I wanted to go to a secretarys’ night school.  Then he called one of his classmates who lived in Boston and the guy told him what Silber was doing.  If Silber hadn’t pulled BU out of the dumpster (which was created by trash like Murray Levin,  Zinn and Piven) I would have gone someplace else.  The BU eduaction and diploma is valuable now because of John Silber.  Without him you might as well have gone to UMAss Boston or Fisher.

    • Tom

      UMass Boston gives more value for the money than the value you get from the $55,000 per year you have to spend at BU–Silber or no Silber.

    • J__o__h__n

      Perhaps at secretarys’ [sic] night school you could have learned spelling and typing.  Good thing you didn’t go to UMAss [sic].

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