Silber was not a humble man. In 1996, when he moved up from the presidency of
Boston University to the chancellorship, he likened his successor to Joshua and
himself to Moses, the only man, according to the Hebrew Bible, who saw God face
it’s hard to image a college or university president mattering the way Dr.
Silber did then, to many within and without academia. Teresa Sullivan’s ouster
and reinstatement at the University of Virginia grabbed national attention, but
no one claims her leadership is greatly good or bad. Now as in the past, most
presidents exist to cast a glow of learning over mundane activities such as
placating faculty, blessing five-year plans, and, above all, raising money.
I worked for him, with the comical title of “Special Assistant for Covert
Operations,” Dr. Silber described himself in his Texan growl as zookeeper to some
of the most rambunctious critters on earth. But far from a mere caretaker, Silber
took a stand–often athwart history–for the sake of excellence. He offers an
example of how an elitist can actually thrive within a democracy.