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.
Recalling the ‘Poor
he was a noted student of Kantian philosophy, his success did not depend solely
on intellectual firepower. Many people imagined he was an ogre; in fact, he was
a charmer. He loved jokes and was a gifted artist. Once I was filing some
papers and found posters he had designed 30 years before for his best friend
Bill Arrowsmith’s debut of Aristophanes’ Birds,
“Cooked up Fresh.” He had presence–and he knew it. And he could combine natural
superiority with kindness. For many years an amiable chap named would work in
Dr. Silber’s office for a few months, disappear for a stretch, and then just as
suddenly reappear. Dr. Silber would take him right in, no questions asked.
After one disappearance, we learned that he had done himself in. “Poor little
guy,” Dr. Silber said. He didn’t seem to recall that the “little guy”
was several inches taller than he.
All these non-intellectual qualities help explain how he came within a hair’s
breadth of winning the Massachusetts governor’s race in 1990. Of course, there
was also his quality of Straight Shooting,
as his bestseller proclaimed. He loved to mock others with the truth. I met him
first at new student orientation at BU, where he reminded us that we were there
because we were ignorant. As proof he predicted that, by year’s end, a few of
us would be removed from the student body by failing to look both ways when
crossing Commonwealth Avenue. Cruel? Perhaps. Parents certainly gasped–just the
same way the pundits did when he said of rising Medicare costs, “When you’re
ripe, it’s time to go.” But many of us teen-agers found a welcome respect in
his harshness as compared to the soothing words of our professional coddlers
and helicopter parents.
was great-souled, which meant that he admitted great flaws among his virtues.
(He didn’t, however, care for others pointing out those flaws.) As another
culture critic, Dwight Macdonald, said of himself, Silber was sounder in his
“no’s” than in his “yes’s.” My sense is that he believed courage is the deepest
virtue, and so he regularly succumbed to con-men. As he said of one of them,
“He was so confident; I felt sure he must be telling the truth.” Conversely, he
hated perceived timidity. One of his ablest lieutenants was a quiet,
introspective soul. Dr. Silber labeled him a “second-stringer” and
unfortunately favored sycophants who only ended up bringing him woe.
A Rover, Not a
the governor’s race revealed, like many academicians, Dr. Silber had political
dreams, and he was disappointed in them. He was a New Deal Democrat who, by
persisting in his views, ended up being called a conservative. He never truly
got the Reagan Revolution, though he thought he could demand the office of Secretary
of Education. When his student Bill Bennett got the job instead, Dr. Silber
complained that the sorcerer had been upstaged by his apprentice. He tried the
old charm a few years later on Bill Clinton, and left his audience sure he had
the job. But he had been out-schmoozed by the best of them. In truth, as FDR
had recognized about Robert Maynard Hutchins decades before, Dr. Silber was not
a “team-player.” Tapping him would have been like carrying a live grenade into
his old-style liberalism helps explain why Dr. Silber was also, like Moses, a
rover not a settler. He loved to fight the feminists, gay activists, anti-nukes
folks, anti-anti-Communists, and all shades of the politically correct. But
while he won the arguments he lost the war. Today Boston University is just as
good as any top-tier university–which is to say that it celebrates all the
usual foolishness that top-tier universities do.
I last saw Dr. Silber, he complained to me that his life had been a failure: he
felt, he said with characteristic modesty, like Pericles watching Athens
decline. (I reminded him that Pericles had died of the plague in 429 BC, when
Athens was still at its height. Didn’t seem to help.) I don’t think he was a
failure, and I told him so. In a world of phonies, he was the real thing. Amid
academics who just played with words, he loved arguing because he believed it
meant something. He respected youth not for what it was but what it could
be–and he felt the same way about democracy. Homer says of the dead Tiresias,
“He alone among the shades of Hades breathes.” I imagine John Silber the same