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John R. Silber: War and Peace at Boston University

By Nicholas D. Kristof

His forehead glistening with beads of sweat, John R. Silber is hotly defending his record as president of Boston University [B.U.] before a crowded press conference. His face is ashen and his teeth are gritted, but his voice never breaks as he makes point after point in firm, measured tones. As he pauses for emphasis, a student heckler interrupts to ask a pointed question. Silber whips his head around and shuts the student up with an ice-cold stare and a reminder that it is he, Silber, who is holding the press conference. Then, without losing pace, Silber plunges back into his statement, speaking in those same firm tones.

John Silber is never one to back down in a confrontation. Cool, brilliant, and articulate, he fires verbal salvos with wilting accuracy--he once described faculty activists as "coffee house unionists" and reminded a student union president of his "pimples."

Now Silber is fighting hard to win his biggest confrontation yet. Next month he will preside over a faculty assembly that will debate a resolution calling for his dismissal. Twenty-five professors are active in a committee working to oust him, and the student forum of the college of liberal arts voted recently to demand that he be fired. Six-hundred professors from M I T, Harvard, and other Boston-area universities have signed a petition calling for Silber's removal and have pledged to withhold administrative courtesies--such as advice on promotions--from B.U. as long as he is president.

Silber's opponents charge that his dictatorial actions have turned B.U. into a place "more like Iran under the Shah or Chile under the Junta than like an institution of higher learning," in the words of one critic. They charge him with using tenure, promotions, and salaries to punish his opponents on the faculty in a systematic effort to stamp out dissent. They accuse him of censoring student publications and the student radio station. Most recently, they protest his effort to fire or suspend five of his staunchest critics on the faculty for teaching classes off-campus or making them up later during a clerical workers' strike this fall.

In a rare, hour-long interview on Monday, Silber vigorously defended himself, accusing his critics of infringing on his civil liberties instead of vice versa. He said he has no regrets about the way he has managed Boston University: "Why should I have regrets for being as successful as I have, in saving an institution that was on the edge of bankruptcy, threatened by mediocrity on the one hand and by fiscal instability on the other? This institution is an extraordinarily fine one. It has vastly increased the number of outstanding faculty since I've been here. There's not a single continuing program in Boston University that is not vastly stronger today from an academic standpoint than it was when I came here. And this institution is far stronger financially. And it is far more visible, nationally and internationally."

Leaning forward and speaking intensely, he asks, "So why should I hang my head and go around regretting what's happened? I'm damn pleased with what's happened. What I'm not pleased with is that there's a tiny element of this faculty that believes that they are permitted to lie about this institution."

Controversy is not new to John Silber. In the spring of 1976 a majority of the deans and faculty called for his resignation. But Silber defended himself brilliantly and the board of trustees gave him a unanimous vote of confidence--albeit with two abstentions.

Since then Silber has reshuffled the board of trustees so that many observers believe the board is only a rubber stamp. Helen B. Spaulding, a former trustee who was edged out this fall after disagreements with Silber, says that at B.U. the president chooses the trustees instead of the other way around. She says the 46 trustees--most of whom are successful businessmen--have little contact with students or faculty. Moreover, Silber has sometimes tried to isolate the trustees from other administrators, she says.

Spaulding also has praise for Silber--she says he attracted outstanding professors and gave the university an organizational facelift--but now she believes he should be dismissed. "Its's time for someone else," she adds.

Most trustees disagree, and there appears to be strong support on the board for Silber. Just last month the trustees--incensed at what they considered inaccurate and biased reporting about the five professors facing disciplinary proceedings--bought full-page advertisements in The Boston Globe and Boston Herald-American to "set the record straight" and declare their "full confidence" in Silber. The ads reportedly cost B.U. $17,000.

The Chairman of the board of trustees is Arthur G.B. Metcalf, who is also president of Electronic Corporation of America. Metcalf and Silber are "Siamese twins" in outlook and philosophy, says Samuel Y. Edgerton, a professor of art history who adds that the trustees have an outdated vision of college life and see Silber as the last, best hope of maintaining that vision. Silber's toughness in dealing with students and professors may outrage the university community but it pleases the trustees, Edgerton notes.

The university hired Silber in 1971, shortly after he was fired from his position as dean of the University of Texas for running afoul of the conservative chairman of the Board of Regents. A vigorous supporter of civil rights and an ardent opponent of capital punishment, he was widely perceived as a liberal martyr and the B.U. presidential search committee thought he might be just the one to give B.U. a needed charge.

They got more than they bargained for. He insulted, antagonized, and offended professors who were used to kid-glove treatment. When a faculty union sprang up he refused to deal with it until compelled to do so by the National Labor Relations Board. After receiving criticism from the student press he approved a new publication policy preventing student activity fees from financing publications.

"He just does not know how to keep his mouth shut," says a personal friend of Silber. "He bullies people and at times he borders on paranoia. He sees things conspiratorially--he sees the left as out to get him."

John Silber used this talent for intimidation when he was a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, fresh from Yale graduate school. He taught by the Socratic method and reportedly frightened some students to tears--all in the pursuit of educational excellence.

One widely-held theory to explain Silber's combativeness is that he is out to prove himself. Silber's right arm ends in a knob at his elbow--the result of a birth defect--and some say he is still revenging himself upon the school children who taunted him as a child.

For whatever reason, Silber doesn't mince words. Responding to charges that he denied salary increases to political science professors Howard Zinn and Murray Levin because they are among his most outspoken critics, Silber said they simply do not deserve higher salaries: "They are not regarded in high esteem generally--Harvard has never offered them a professorship; neither has Yale. If these people are so worried about their salaries, why don't they get an offer someplace else? The answer is no place else wants them."

The faculty had originally planned to meet next Tuesday to vote on a resolution calling for Silber's dismissal. However, Silber--who will chair the meeting--postponed the assembly because he will be out of the country on that date. He said he is not concerned by the possibility the faculty will recommend his ouster because such a vote would show "absolute contempt for civil liberties and civil rights. You don't decide by popular vote on the truth or falsity of charges that have not been examined or investigated."

Silber's belligerence melts as he recalls a previously unreported incident that is at odds with his reputation for callousness. A year ago he hired an attorney with his own money to defend a young cab driver charged with murder. The cabbie's brother, a security guard at B.U., had told Silber of the situation: the court-appointed attorney was trying to convince the defendant to plead guilty in exchange for only a 20-year sentence. Outraged at this, Silber retained a different attorney and the man was later acquitted. The second attorney, George V. Higgins of Boston, says Silber paid a fee of more than $15,000 from his own pocket.

Few people see Silber in such a charitable light. No one denies that he is brilliant and enormously articulate, but many believe he is using his talents to the detriment of Boston University. For example, his critics say his abrasiveness and intransigence in labor negotiations were a major stimulus for union activity at B.U., which has had three strikes within the last year.

"I'm watching a man of high ideals become corrupted by his power," says one personal friend. "He's one of those sad cases of a flawed genius."

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