"Live" with TAE: As a Leader in Higher Education, It's Hard to Match His Record. He's a Dedicated Democrat and Self-Described Liberal Who Fights for High Standards, Creates Controversy, and Clashes with the Left. Meet ... John Silber

The American Enterprise, September 2002 | Go to article overview

"Live" with TAE: As a Leader in Higher Education, It's Hard to Match His Record. He's a Dedicated Democrat and Self-Described Liberal Who Fights for High Standards, Creates Controversy, and Clashes with the Left. Meet ... John Silber


In over 30 years of leading Boston University--25 as president, the last six as chancellor, and, since early July, also as acting president--John Silber has boosted what had been a big but undistinguished commuter school into the upper echelon of American higher education.

At a glance, his managerial style seems a mass of contradictions: He is detail-oriented enough to write letters to students reprimanding them for stealing silverware from dining halls, yet visionary enough to re-create his institution in ways that shape the national debate on issues ranging from core curricula to declining educational standards. In 1990, he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts and narrowly lost the general election to Republican William Weld. (Weld later appointed Silber to head the state's Board of Education.)

A scholar of Immanuel Kant, Silber combines prodigious scholarly output with steely managerial skills and a penchant for controversy. He helped create Operation Head Start--arguably the Great Society's most successful legacy--and served as dean of the University of Texas's College of Arts and Sciences before assuming BU's presidency in 1971.

At BU he has frequently quarreled with the University's faculty and clashed with just about every radical leftist on campus. Silber has also raised enormous amounts of money (the University's endowment, $18 million when he arrived, now stands at over $600 million), recruited a bevy of distinguished scholars, and improved just about every one of the University's programs.

A die-hard Democrat, he voted for George W. Bush in the last election ("I don't like robots," he says of Al Gore) and Ronald Reagan in 1980. But he also supported Bill Clinton--twice (holding his nose the second time)--and contributed heavily to Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1976. Though he is pro-life, staunchly conservative on most foreign policy issues, and scornful of new academic trends and fads, Silber defies ideological labels.

While he's probably done more to please conservatives than the president of any other important research university, Silber is an ardent opponent of the death penalty, a strong believer in government's ability to improve citizens' lives through social spending, and a supporter of affirmative action.

He pulled no punches when he spoke with TAE senior editor Eli Lehrer at his stately office in a converted mansion on the campus of Boston University.

TAE: How does your background in the liberal arts in general and philosophy in particular affect the way you lead the University?

SILBER: Well, it doesn't explain my ability to be an effective college president, because that takes street smarts. For me, street smarts came from growing up during the Depression. I had to know how to balance a budget. When I was in graduate school, making $140 a month, I kept a journal of every expenditure: 49 cents for a pound of hamburger meat; 12 cents for a loaf of bread. We saved money every month. That is what got me used to the notion that budgets, and economics, are important.

When it comes to the University itself, however, the study of philosophy is absolutely critical because you have to ask, "What are you trying to convey to these students?"

TAE: So what should a university stand for? What should it try to do?

SILBER: People live for the arts, religion, and philosophy. What every human being really seeks is some sense of the meaning of life. And there ought to be a way in which the university assists these students in finding that meaning.

You can't find the meaning of life without figuring out who you are yourself and how you fit into a universe you did not create. I think that hundredth Psalm is of very great importance. The Scriptures say: "It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. …

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"Live" with TAE: As a Leader in Higher Education, It's Hard to Match His Record. He's a Dedicated Democrat and Self-Described Liberal Who Fights for High Standards, Creates Controversy, and Clashes with the Left. Meet ... John Silber
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