John Silber, president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, died on Thursday. Combing the obituaries and appraisals of his life and career, one senses a positively titanic figure in the world of academia—a man whom it would be impossible to ignore, and precisely the kind of person one could simultaneously hate and respect. A man almost beyond understanding.
That is the essence of America, and the point Orson Welles evoked with Citizen Kane, whose subject’s life was likened to a jigsaw puzzle. We fool ourselves when we say our leaders should be Superman-like cardboard cutouts with absolute moral clarity. Complexity is the new black.
I did not attend Boston University during Silber’s long tenure as president, although he was still hanging around campus as president emeritus. (He also served as Chancellor from 1996 to 2003.) The legend of President Silber rang loudly in the halls and the dorms, both from those who experienced his leadership firsthand and those merely passing along rumors in a 16,000-person game of “telephone.”
In many young minds, Silber’s legacy was and will continue to be predominantly defined by his extremely turbulent relationship with all matters relating to homosexuality. It was not merely that, as acting president in 2002, he disbanded a gay-straight alliance at the Boston University Academy (a BU-affiliated high school), but that he condemned members of the group as practitioners of “evangelism” and “homosexual militancy” for purposes of recruiting and training young cadets to engage in unspeakable sexual exploits.
It would be nice if the BUA incident were the sum total of Silber’s executive accomplishments and we could simply write him off as a wretched human being with not a shred of human empathy or any discernible connection with the real world.
But then we read that Silber had a son, David, who was gay and died of complications from AIDS in 1994, and realize the enormously complex role the subject of homosexuality must have played in Silber’s life—that it was more personal to him, for good or ill, than we might ever know.
We also cannot dismiss him outright because, as the record makes clear, he presided over, and was largely responsible for, a veritable renaissance in the life of his university. During his rule, Boston University’s endowment exploded from $18 million to $422 million, its research grants from $15 million to $180 million, and he balanced every one of its budgets. The school’s total real estate holdings tripled, with $700 million going towards various construction projects, and the pedigree of its personnel took a definite upward turn.
I have always reserved a soft spot in my heart for people who say exactly what they think about controversial subjects without fear of what might happen to them personally or professionally. People who, like Joan Jett, don’t give a damn about their reputations. Silber was such a man, to put it in the mildest possible terms.
I was tickled to read how, for instance, Silber’s initial BU job interview consisted of him ticking off his myriad complaints about the state of the university at the time. As reported in his New York Times obituary, “He called the campus ugly, bemoaned a faculty laden with ‘deadwood’ and said the university might be dying.” He was hired on the perceived strength of his ideas.
Having watched on YouTube a fairly recent interview with Silber by the Texas Tribune, I found a man who still very much lived up to the title of his first book, Straight Shooting, and—to my mild surprise—a man with whom I could find much common ground on matters of bureaucracy in education. (His views on the dangers of political correctness in academia are well worth debating.)
Silber was also a man of irrepressible bluster. Asked for self-assessment by a local TV reporter during his 1990 run for Massachusetts governor, he cited “honesty” as his primary strength, and then proceeded to stonewall the question of personal weakness. As Mitt Romney has learned in 2012, the public is not terribly impressed when the second half of a sentence contradicts the first half.
I mentioned Citizen Kane as an entry point into understanding the lives of certain men—or rather, into realizing they can’t be understood at all. John Silber’s was one that might make a decent film in its own right, and he seemed to share many qualities with Charles Foster Kane himself. “Here’s a man who could have been president,” we are told in Kane, “who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time.”
I would be very interested in what a search for Silber’s childhood artifacts might dig up.