Nobody ever called John Silber dull. Outspoken and combative, the longtime Boston University president and current chancellor has tangled with many groups over the past three decades, including students, faculty, feminists, and gay activists. But his most recent controversy took even some dedicated Silber-watchers by surprise.
This summer, BU president Jon Westling resigned, so Chancellor Silber has temporarily reassumed presidential duties. Then, when the BU Academy, a university-run private school for grades 8 through 12, resumed in September, students learned that Silber had summarily ordered headmaster James Tracy to disband the school's two-year-old gay-straight alliance. The action, which was prompted by one complaint about the group from a parent, was taken without consulting any of the academy's students or faculty, according to BU spokesman Kevin Carleton.
Silber, 76, who had a gay son who died of AIDS complications in 1994, declined to talk to The Advocate for this story. But he defended his decision to The Boston Globe. "We're not running a program in sex education," he told the Globe. If they want that kind of program, they can go to public school and learn how to put a condom over a banana." At the BU Academy, he said, "the last thing in the world we want to do is try to introduce these children to the importance of premature sex."
Silber's action provoked an outcry from activists, gay groups, elected officials, and the editorial pages of the Globe and BU's Daily Free Press as well as from students at BU's school of law and college of fine arts, who circulated protest petitions. Advocates for gay-straight alliances emphasized that the groups are not about teaching sex but about offering support and combating prejudice. One member of the BU Academy GSA, a straight boy who asked not to be identified, tells The Advocate, "We talk about sex in sex education. I viewed the GSA as more of a diversity club." A petition signed by more than 40% of BU law students and presented to Silber criticized his "intolerable display of bigotry."
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network, a national gay advocacy group on youth issues, has called for Silber's resignation. GLSEN executive director Kevin Jennil]gs says Silber's action was especially dangerous because it could encourage other adminls' trators to close down GSAs, even though the federal Equal Access Act protects the clubs in public schools. "They'll think, 'If John Silber can do it, so can I,'" Jennings says. As a private school, BU is not covered by the act.
Despite the protests, Silber shows no signs of changing his mind. In a speech two weeks after the GSA firestorm erupted, he said the club encouraged "a form of homosexual militancy" 'and "evangelism," according to The Daily Free Press. While "some people" are bom gay, Silber conceded, "a very large percentage of people who become homosexual are homosexual because that is the way in which they were first seduced into sex. Not because of anything else. And there's just no reason for us to encourage that." He also defended the right of organizations to discriminate based on sexual orientation or physical deformity, as long as they don't foment hate against these groups of people.
Silber, a University of Texas philosophy professor and dean when he be came BU president in 1971, has long been a hero of conservative academic groups, says Ken Sherrill, the openly gay chair of the political science department at City University of New York's Hunter College. …