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Silber’s odyssey in pursuit of truth

Austin to Boston, no words minced

John Silber checked his notes before speaking at the Sheraton Boston Hotel in October, 1990.

Globe File/1990

John Silber checked his notes before speaking at the Sheraton Boston Hotel in October, 1990.

Anger hovers in the air, like the mythical Furies beating their wings, in John Silber’s presence.

For as long as people have known him, Silber has been smoldering over what he perceives as false gods, sophistry, ignorance and insult. In the face of scorn, he has compared himself with Hector, Coriolanus and Galileo; and he holds other victims of society -- Jesus Christ and Socrates -- as heroes.

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His academic career spans four decades of conflict and controversy. In conducting his personal war in the name of educational excellence, his critics say, he has waged a campaign of intellectual terrorism.

The halls of Boston University and the University of Texas are haunted by students and teachers he has humbled. Silber has a compulsion to make strong and provocative remarks, however impolitic, as if he considers it a form of honesty to speak his mind. He has offended blacks, Jews, feminists and homosexuals with statements they feel are insensitive. He refuses to retreat from his own words and considers them educative tools in a philosophical debate.

As president of BU -- a school he described as “big and ugly” and bereft of creative firepower when he was hired in 1970 -- Silber purged the faculty of professors he terms “second-raters.” He is fond of classical metaphors and compares his task with Hercules’ cleansing of the Augean stables. He also has battled the BU student body and board of trustees over the years. He once said he had survived the fights “because I’ve been right so much of the time.”

Silber announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts on Feb. 11, 1990.

Janet Knott/Globe Staff/file

Silber announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts on Feb. 11, 1990.

BU has been transformed from a nondescript institution to one that last year attracted President Bush and French President Francois Mitterrand to its commencement exercises. But in the process, the campus along the Charles has become part of Silber’s cult of personality.

Few figures in Massachusetts summon such thunder, arouse greater passions, or engender more hatred.

Before coming to Boston, Silber’s experience at the University of Texas was just as explosive. Norman Hackerman, who was president of the university when he appointed Silber dean of the college of arts and sciences in 1967, said that he chose Silber because the school “had a stodginess that had to be shaken out of it, and Silber was the man who could do it.”

Within 2 1/2 years, Silber replaced 22 of 28 department chairmen. When his ambition and thirst for power became too obvious, he was brought down like the men in his pantheon of heroes.

At the time, his sympathizers depicted him as a force of light snuffed out by a retrograde board of regents. Today, across a gulf of 20 years, the picture of Silber at the University of Texas has darkened like an old photograph. He emerges in some contemporary accounts as a willful and vainglorious administrator. Colleagues and acquaintances from his Austin days now characterize Silber as a “madman” and a leader who took on a “sinister edge” when he became dean.

He is also remembered there as a stern and demanding teacher. Some of his students responded to his challenges; others were broken by him and wept in his classrooms. A former student said that as a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, Silber “specialized in humiliating 18-year-olds.”

“That,” said Silber last week, “is a lot of revisionary horseshit.”

Silber is proud that he does not “speak plastic.”

And as he takes leave as president of BU to pursue the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts, Silber has no intention of

moderating his manner. An outspoken “outsider,” as he sees it, he clearly hopes to draw strength from the anger that exists in the state this year against the political establishment.

Over the years, Silber has been subjected to drugstore psychology. According to one theory, his feelings about his right arm, deformed at birth at elbow length, have caused him to be so combative. Or: his German father imbued him with authoritarianism. Or: his immersion in philosophy has led him to use withering Socratic methods that often have turned normal conversations into arguments.

According to Silber, his childhood environment was shaped by strict, loving parents and a grandmother who helped teach him to read and write. He was one of two sons. His father was a German immigrant, who left Berlin in 1902 to use his skills as an architect in the New World. His mother was an American schoolteacher. They made their home in San Antonio.

Silber, who was born in 1926, grew up during the Great Depression. His father was a proud man, and when his work ran out, he refused to take lesser jobs. He applied to the public schools to teach mechanical drawing, Silber said, but because he had no political connections he was refused. The family subsisted on his mother’s $810-a-year job, moving from their comfortable two- story home to a series of smaller houses.

As a child, he has said, he fought schoolmates who taunted him about his arm. He does not hide his physical handicap; his shirts and suits are tailored to expose the knot of flesh.

Silber does not accept simplistic theories about his psyche.

He remembers that his father had some idiosyncrasies that he identifies as German. His father liked to lock things, a practice his son does not follow. ‘‘I think order is better than chaos,” Silber said the other day. But, he added, “It wasn’t that I was reared in a German household with a fetish about order.”

Silber admires some aspects of German culture: its folk songs, its school of philosophers and its study of science. “I wouldn’t describe myself exactly as a Germanophile,” he said. “The Germans obviously had no great political gifts.”

After Silber graduated from San Antonio’s public schools, his life became a “wandering trail,” he said, an intellectual and spiritual journey that ultimately led to a career as an educator.

He veered from Trinity University in San Antonio following his freshman year to Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., only to abandon music school there when he realized he was “an amateur.” He went back to Trinity and graduated with a degree in philosophy and fine arts.

At Trinity he also met and married his wife, Kathryn, and they have been together for more than 40 years. They have seven grown children -- six daughters and a son -- and four grandchildren.

The young couple moved to New Haven, where Silber enrolled at Yale Divinity School and considered becoming a minister. He left after a year for the University of Texas Law School and dropped out there following one semester

because of “financial distress.”

Silber earned money by selling “night snacks” to students. He “developed a passionate antipathy to sorority people who, on a cold day when you’d be hauling those drinks and sandwiches and things around to the dormitories late at night, they’d pay you by dropping the damn money in the bucket of ice.”

Finally, the Silbers returned to Yale, where he received a master’s degree in philosophy in 1952, followed by a doctorate in 1956. He wrote his dissertation on the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who has been a major influence in his life. His study of Kant convinced Silber that man’s will is free of extraneous forces; that logical conclusions can be reached through the power of thought.

Silber’s theological quest was especially intense. He became skeptical of religious claims as a boy, he said, after hearing on the radio “some crazy fundamentalist fulminating on how godless evolution was.”

He was brought up as a Presbyterian, in the austere faith of John Calvin. At Yale, he said, “I began to have intellectual difficulties with certain aspects of Presbyterianism. The Calvinist notion of predestination just seemed to me to be a form of madness.

“Terrible things were said about God,” he said. “If John Calvin had said about a human being and attributed to a human being the virulence that he attributed to God, I think that no one would have accepted that view as satisfactory at all.”

He also described as “errant nonsense” and “a hatred of life,” St. Paul’s views that “it is better to marry than to burn, but it is better not to marry.” When he discussed this with his Presbyterian minister, he was told ‘‘it wasn’t my job to argue with St. Paul, but my job to believe him. I checked out as far as that minister was concerned from that day forward.”

As a 21-year-old divinity student, he took over a Baptist congregation in Connecticut when the minister he had been assisting quit. “I helped him leave

because at the end he had asked me what I thought of his sermons and I would tell him,” he said. “They were awful. They were really bad.”

The church was not Southern Baptist; he said it was “much more latitudinarian” than his own Presbyterian church.

To help pay for divinity school, he sang in the choir of a Jewish reform synagogue, where he found “the music was wonderful and the sermons were excellent.” He considered converting to Judaism.

“I thought about it, and then found out that the racism of Jews is quite phenomenal,” he said. “If you are goyim considering becoming a Jew, you are going to be second-class in that synagogue, and I didn’t have any interest at all in moving into that congregation as a second-class citizen. I also thought that Judaism made a great mistake in not recognizing Jesus as one in the line of the great Hebrew prophets.”

In 1959, after Yale, while he was studying at the University of Bonn on a Fulbright scholarship, Silber said he discovered that his father was Jewish. He knows nothing of the Jewish background. In fact, his father had become so assimilated in the United States that a stained glass window in the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio is dedicated to his father’s mother. “If she had been a practicing Jew, I don’t believe my father would have done that,” Silber said.

The Bible is one of the great books he considers essential reading for scholars. In an interview last week, he was asked whether he embraced Christ’s Sermon on the Mount -- “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

“Consider that in the context of Auschwitz and you get a very clear meaning of the sense in which” the meek “inherited the earth,” Silber replied. “They joined the earth as ashes.” Paraphrasing Dylan Thomas, he added, “I do not believe in going gentle to that dark night.”

Asked whether he is an agnostic, Silber said he found it impossible to answer the question. “I certainly am not prepared to express with confidence a particular credo or formulation,” he said. “On the other hand,” he said, he considers religion important. “I certainly live in accordance with a

universe that has transcendent meaning.”

The ground for Silber’s turbulent reign at BU was prepared at the University of Texas. He was lured back to his home state from a teaching post at Yale to join the university’s philosophy department in 1955.

Stories of Silber the teacher vary according to the source.

His friend, Ronnie Dugger, publisher of the liberal weekly, The Texas Observer, said, “There’s something in him that’s noble: the doctrine of personal excellence. He really believes it, and he wants everybody to aspire to it.”

Willie Morris, another writer who was once part of the Texas Observer crowd, hailed Silber as an example of the renaissance that took place at the university in the 1960s.

However, Morris’ former wife, Celia Morris, who studied under Silber, said he “picked on” women students. “He never mitigated this almost demonic deprecation of women,” she said. “Any woman who had something to do with him has felt diminished.”

Silber discounts her criticism. She turned against him, he said, when he refused to take her side in a poisonous divorce from Morris.

Laura Richardson, who was a philosophy student and a left-wing activist at the University of Texas during the 1960s, remembers Silber as “very arrogant . . . He would have temper tantrums. He thought he was a grandiose figure. He really believed he was an intellectual, hanging around with 17-year-olds. He never listened to anyone; he just bullied people with what he thought was the Socratic method.”

Animosity toward Silber is fierce in some academic circles in Austin. Several sources there said that there is speculation over what they call “the great Silber fire” in Boston in 1972. There was a fire in the BU president’s home, which his friends blamed on arson, in which Silber said his manuscript for a book on Kant was badly damaged. His adversaries in Texas suggest that the manuscript never existed.

Silber became furious when the subject was raised with him in an interview on Wednesday. “They’re lying sons of bitches,” he said. “That pisses me off. That’s ridiculous.” He had the reconstructed manuscript, which appeared to be several hundred pages long, delivered to his campaign headquarters to establish that his enemies were spreading falsehoods.

Silber also rejected criticism of his classroom technique. “I never had a required course in my life,” he said, “and the students flocked to my classes. Why? Even today, I get long letters from students on how their life was changed because I made them think.”

Silber acknowledged that he confronted his students with “a moral situation in which some of them cried.” In one “thought experiment” he used, Silber described a mathematical genius who could not relate to everyday questions and “an orangutan in the back room” who quoted Dylan Thomas and Hamlet’s soliloquy. Asked to pick lifelong companions, his students unanimously chose the orangutan. They even preferred, he said, to “be married to that orangutan than to be married to that damn scientist who never asked a self-reflective question.”

In the final stage of the exercise, Silber substituted a poetic black person for the orangutan. “Sure, some kids cried. You’re damn right. All of a sudden you have the compaction of emotion and a moment of discovery. You’re prepared to marry an orangutan and now you’re going to get held up because this orangutan turns out to be only a Negro? They could see the point. Do you think those kids ever thought about race in the same way again?”

Silber does not flinch from dramatic illustrations that are subject to misinterpretation or to charges of insensitivity. “Nobody has to read my books, nobody has to listen to me,” he said. “Grate on their sensitivity? I want to grate on their minds. I want to grate on their conscience. I want to make a difference in the way in which they perceive reality.”

If Silber was exacting as a teacher, he was even more severe as an administrator, said several of his former associates in Austin. He became chairman of the philosophy department in 1962 and was named dean of the vast

college of arts and sciences with more than 20,000 students in 1967.

“Academic politics? He practiced it ruthlessly,” said Standish Meachem, the dean of the college of liberal arts, who now occupies Silber’s old office at the University of Texas.

Meachem was acting chairman of the history department when Silber was dean. ‘‘I had to deal with a madman,” he recalled. “Somewhere there’s a screw loose.”

While Silber was carrying out his first purge of the faculty, “A lot of people were very afraid of him, and I was one of them,” Meachem said. “I’d come here in fear and trembling.”

In 1968, Silber authorized the firing of Larry Caroline, a young member of the philosophy department who had made a speech at the state capitol calling for revolution. The case became a cause celebre on the campus, and many faculty members and students rallied behind Caroline on the grounds of academic freedom. Silber appeared at one demonstration and told Caroline’s supporters, “The reason why you are impressed by Mr. Caroline is because you’re so ignorant.”

“It seemed to me Silber was selling out his convictions,” said Meachem, “to curry favor with the regents,” the board that governed the school. “I think John Silber turned somersaults intellectually to justify the firing of Caroline. His in-tellectual argument was bullshit.”

Silber defended his handling of the Caroline affair in his recently published book, “Straight Shooting”: “Lawrence Caroline badly miseducated his students and was himself a casualty of an ideological invasion of the campus.” The postscript is a letter Silber received in 1987 from Caroline. Silber said that Caroline told him, “I, too, would have tried to remove me from the university.”

Celia Morris, who went on from the University of Texas to become a well-known feminist and writer, is less forgiving. “As John Silber got more powerful, the cheerfulness got lost,” she said. “It was chilling when he started getting more power; there were feisty battles and real challenges. A sinister edge came to it.”

And as he flexed his power, Silber came into conflict with Frank Erwin, the chairman of the board of regents, in a struggle that had national repercussions.

In the beginning, Silber was considered a loyal agent for Erwin, one of the most formidable men in Texas. Erwin was a product of the Democratic organization controlled by former President Lyndon B. Johnson and former Gov. John Con-nally. He was also the epitome of a University of Texas booster; his clothes and his Cadillac carried Texas colors - orange and white.

“They were twins in their own way,” said Hackerman, the former president of the university. “Erwin and Silber both had the same attitude: It’s my idea, so it must be good.”

The clash was as inescapable as the plot to a Greek tragedy, and it has been misrepresented over the years as a struggle between liberals and conservatives.

Erwin died in 1980, but one of his closest confidants, Ben Barnes, said that Erwin was disturbed over Silber’s tendency to testify on behalf of the university on matters that “Frank thought were on his turf.” Barnes, who was lieutenant gov-ernor at the time, was asked whether Silber had become “too big” for Erwin’s comfort. “I guess that was in the back of his mind,” he said.

Silber said that the issue that was used as a device to remove him as dean was a contrived one - the division of the college of arts and sciences that would eliminate his job.

Silber, who opposed further expansion of the university, said he actually ran afoul of Erwin over the university’s build-ing scheme. Silber had invested in a privately built dormitory adjacent to the campus. He said he sold his interest in the property when he became dean, though, to avoid a conflict of interest.

Silber said in an interview last week that he had a confrontation with Erwin before he was fired. “You and your friends are buying up land all around the university and building high-rise buildings around it as condominiums or as apart-ments,” Silber said he told Erwin. “As long as you push the size of this university, you can guarantee yourself a huge profit. Don’t you see that as a serious conflict of interest?”

Silber said that Erwin “looks over his half-glasses and shakes his head at me, and he says, ‘John, you aren’t ever going to understand.’ He says that in a very friendly way: ‘You’re never going to understand. Where there’s no conflict, there is no interest.’ That ought to be in Bartlett’s famous quotations because that is a wonderful quotation. That is the quintes-sence of cynicism. He wasn’t embarrassed, he wasn’t ashamed, or anything else.”

Despite the emotional climax to their disagreement, the two men remained friends until Erwin’s death. Silber said he admired Erwin “because the man is so direct.” Erwin cut him down, Silber once said, “just as Achilles met Hector.”

With the votes of the other regents in hand, after Silber failed in his personal efforts to win support from other board members, Erwin moved to oust Silber in July 1970.

It was instantly branded as a right-wing coup d’etat against the university community. Mike Quinn, a spokesman for the university administration then and a communications professor there now, said it appeared that Silber orchestrated press coverage of the episode. The firing took place on a Friday afternoon. All of the Texas newspapers had be-hind-the-scenes accounts of the showdown in their Sunday editions, Quinn said, “and that could not have been done without help.”

One story contained a quote attributed to Erwin: “John, you’re the most intelligent, articulate and hard-working man at this university. Because of these qualities, you make some people in the higher echelons nervous.”

Another quote became part of Silber lore in Texas. Erwin is said to have told him: “John, the war is over. I’m gonna make you famous. I’m gonna fire you.”

Silber’s struggle was portrayed in heroic terms by Time magazine. He was hailed as “one of the country’s leading philosophers . . . a target because of his liberalism, aggressiveness and potential candidacy for the UT presidency.” Erwin was dismissed as LBJ’s crony and the “emperor” of the University of Texas.

The Texan, the student newspaper, assailed Erwin in an editorial for removing “one of the last few independent voices from the scene.” Students held a rally to protest Silber’s firing. He appeared before them and said that the university had been “badly served” by the regents. But he also warned them, “This is no time for revolutionary claptrap.”

Looking back on the case after 20 years, Andy Yemma, the editor of The Texan in 1970 and author of the editorial, said: “Erwin was cast in the villain’s role when Silber locked horns with him because Erwin personified the establishment at the height of Vietnam. Silber was not by any means a liberal or a rabble-rouser. In fact, he was very conservative.”

Just how conservative was not clear until Silber came to Boston.

For four hours last week, Silber discussed his career in two long interviews with a Globe reporter, talks in which he was alternately contentious, mocking and philosophical. At 63, he looks 10 years younger than many people his age, and his voice is strong. It carries traces of Texas; where is pronounced “whur” and “at all” is broken into “a-tall.” Anger seeps into the conversation when he discusses his relationship with some of the institutions in Boston, including the Globe and Harvard University.

“The Globe thinks it’s nice to try to write me off as some goddamned racist,” he said. Tapping his skull with his finger, Silber said, “I’ve got a shit-detector that can figure that out.”

Silber’s record on civil rights in Austin was highlighted by his efforts, as early as 1957, to integrate the university opera company and local theaters. He refused to speak at segregated halls on campus unless the topic was integration.

But as dean, he refused to accede to the demands of a black group, Afro-Americans for Black Liberation, calling them “impossible. . . unreasonable. . . racist . . .” His sharp attacks on bilingual education and “ghetto language” as self-defeating practices brought fire from minorities. He became fully engaged in battle with the student left after he came to BU and he called in the Boston police to put down a demonstration against Marine Corps recruiting on campus.

He began to be perceived in some circles as a reactionary, a label he is as unwilling to accept, just as he refuses to be pigeonholed as a conservative.

Silber said the coverage last month of his controversial remarks about Cambodian refugees settling in Lowell was just the latest effort by the Globe to distort his positions.

“The pattern of coverage went downhill,” he said, after he appeared at an editorial board meeting shortly after he came to Boston University in 1971. He recalled that Tom Winship, then the editor of the newspaper, asked him, “Why do you want to emulate Harvard?” Silber said he had no intention of emulating Harvard. He said he told the group, “There’s not a finer collection of intellectuals anywhere in the world than you’ll find at Harvard, but it is not a first-rate teaching institution at all.”

The Globe, he contended last week, “is a Harvard newspaper.”

Winship, who is retired, said Friday he does not remember making the Harvard remark. “John Silber has bought on to the myth that the Globe is a Harvard paper just like so many folks around town,” he said. “The numbers of Harvard graduates” in the Globe’s editorial hierarchy “just aren’t there,” he said.

Silber contended that the Globe effectively ignored his efforts to support US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s school desegregation order in 1974 that led to busing in Boston. “I suspect that the reasons why the Globe didn’t get involved in that is because Derek Bok and Father Monan signed letters objecting to the request of Judge Garrity that the colleges and universities contribute their substance and their time and their faculties to assist in the integration of the schools and in the enhancement of their educational programs,” Silber said.

He was asked whether he resented Bok, the president of Harvard, and Rev. J. Donald Monan, the president of Boston College. “Absolutely not,” Silber replied.

He was asked whether he had a complex about Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which lie across the Charles River from BU. “That’s a double bind,” he said. “If I don’t take the very humble thing and tug my forelock at the mention of the name of Harvard, then I’m thought to be sensitive about it.”

In the summer of 1984, the day after Rev. Jesse Jackson’s speech to the national Democratic convention, Silber was interviewed by David Luberoff, a reporter for The Tab, a weekly newspaper circulated in the Boston metropolitan area.

“The words were the words of Jesse,” Silber told Luberoff, “but the voice was the voice of Adolf Hitler . . . Now get old Jesse Jackson at the end, speaking in a high-pitched voice just like Hitler. That’s insane. It’s electrifying. You can feel him grip an audience.”

When he was asked about the remark last week, Silber reinforced his language instead of trying to defuse the statement. “It’s demagoguery,” he said of Rev. Jackson’s speech.

Asked whether he did not recognize the potential to antagonize black voters, Silber said, “It’s not in my interest to lie.” He said parallel tape recordings of a Jackson speech and a Hitler speech would prove his point.

“If you think that I have forfeited my right to be an objective reporter of events around me because I’m a college presi-dent, you’ve got me wrong,” Silber said. “Now most college presidents would go out of their way to avoid controversy if there were any way in order to do so. I don’t think that’s the function of an educator. What you call provocative, I call educative.”

“Where did we get off on all this sensitivity kick?” Silber asked. “Do you think Jesse Jackson is sensitive? Do you think members of the press are sensitive? Please!

“Somebody should examine Jesse Jackson’s financial record in PUSH,” he said, referring to Jackson’s Operation PUSH. “And why haven’t they done so? Why haven’t they made a thorough investigation and why have they not yet, to this day, found out what happened to the missing dollars in seven figures?” Silber continued.

In fact, Rev. Jackson’s organization has undergone numerous investigations by Chicago newspapers and prosecutors. Rev. Jackson has been criticized for poor management, but no charges have ever been filed against him.

“Now I think there are excellent black politicians,” he said. ‘I see no reason to place Jesse Jackson on a pedestal. I have said that if I were president of the United States, he’d have a place in my Cabinet, because every president needs some-one to write bumper stickers.”

“You think in order to run for governor of Massachusetts I’m going to take a dive on that? That’s the difference between me and a plastic-speaking politician.”

In an age when college presidents are diplomatic and often more skilled in fund-raising than scholarship, Silber stands out as an unconventional, pugnacious administrator.

The school has been the scene of unrelenting controversy since he came here. From the police raid against antiwar protesters to the decision to allow BU to manage Chelsea’s public schools, Silber has been in the forefront of storm and change.

He minimizes the turmoil on campus today, and said, “The idea of opposition that I have among the faculty is a myth.”

In 1976, by a 3-to-1 ratio among those voting, the BU faculty called for Silber’s ouster. Ten of the university’s 15 deans also urged his dismissal. A confidential report prepared that year by a subcommittee of BU’s board of trustees observed that Silber had “the vision to see the importance of securing top-flight educators,” but it also found evidence that he was “his own worst enemy. His modus operandi has served to alienate most constituencies at BU at the precise moment when the need for cooperation and mutual trust is great.”

Silber averted another firing by cultivating support among the trustees, a lesson he had learned from his Texas expe-rience. Armed with a vote of confidence, he moved to seal his power.

Arthur Metcalf, a Route 128 entrepreneur and Silber ally, ascended to become chairman of BU’s board, and Silber’s opponents among the trustees were relieved or quit. In a gesture of resignation a decade ago, several of the trustees attended a dinner at Boston’s Somerset Club with Hans Estin, the former chairman, who had hoped to replace Silber and had failed. They passed out T-shirts bearing the acronym BUST - for Boston University’s Sacked Trustees - and slipped the shirts over their formal clothes.

The renegade deans were also dispersed. By 1984, when the National Labor Relatilled the “Afghan project.” The pro-gram was financed by the US government in order to train the mujahedeen, or Afghan rebels, to use propaganda in their war to drive out the Soviet Union’s army of occupation.

It is in keeping with Silber’s policy. He has written, “No university worthy of the name can pretend to be value-neutral in the assessment of the United States and the Soviet Union.”

After Redmont objected to BU’s participation in the Afghan operation, unfounded 35-year-old allegations about his “Communist sympathies” were leaked to the student newspaper.

“It’s interesting to see” Silber “yell about McCarthyism, because that’s what he specializes in,” said Bernice Buresh, who quit as an associate professor in the journalism school. When she spoke out against the project at a panel discussion at BU in 1987, Maitre appeared in the audience, wearing a mask.

“They act like schoolyard bullies,” she said of Silber’s followers on the faculty. “How did this bunch of thugs get in this place?”

One of Silber’s few setbacks occurred in 1987, when BU lost a sex discrimination suit brought by Julia Prewitt Brown, an instructor in the English department, who had been denied tenure. Silber, who has been scolded by feminists for language he uses about women, was grilled on cross-examination and testimony was introduced that he had referred to the department, in which one fourth of the tenured faculty were women, as a “damn matriarchy.” The school was or-dered to pay Brown $ 215,000.

Silber has also antagonized gay groups at BU by drawing analogies between homosexuality and bestiality.

Questions have been raised about Silber’s relationship with Kevin White, the former mayor of Boston, whom he hired after White left office at the end of 1983. The city waived its option that year on taking possession of the Common-wealth Armory, a move that enabled BU to take over the property. The state Ethics Commission investigated the case but found no conflict of interest.

There are questions about other land deals that have expanded BU’s sprawling campus; questions about Silber’s personal investment in Metcalf’s firm; and questions about BU’s heavy investment in Seragen, a biotechnology company that is working on a cancer cure.

Henry M. Morgan, who left three years ago as dean of BU’s school of management, has filed a formal complaint with the state attorney general’s office under what is called the “prudent man rule.” He contends that BU, which enjoys the status of a charitable organization, has already jeopardized its financial stability by investing upward of $ 65 million in the company. Silber said Morgan’s estimate on the total investment is too high, but he confirmed that BU was spending $ 1 million a month of its operating funds to maintain Seragen. Silber said the figure represented only 10 percent of the university’s investment in medical research. The attorney general’s office is looking into the case.

Silber said he is proud of his record at the university. “I get tired of hearing that same nonsense repeated over and over,” he said, complaining that adverse comment is invariably generated by “the second-raters” he displaced.

“Since 1980, we’ve made spectacular progress at the university with the recruitment of 800 new faculty members,” he said. “They didn’t come because they were intimidated. They didn’t come because I’m repressive. They didn’t come because I resemble Adolf Hitler. They came because this is one of the most exciting and challenging institutions to be at.”

As he moves into politics, Silber will be judged not only by his stewardship at BU, but by his brusque personality and his pungent views.

His entry into the governor’s race last month was followed almost immediately by a series of page one news stories. First were his remarks to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in which Silber called Massachusetts a “welfare magnet” for Cambodian refugees. Within days he created a new furor when he suggested that alcohol abuse added “a very minor burden to this society” compared with drugs.

Silber complained that his words were taken out of context; that he was a victim of a new McCarthyism by the press. In an interview with the Boston Herald he said he was “going to have to forfeit rights that I have heretofore enjoyed under the First Amendment in order to qualify myself as a candidate.” In campaign appearances, he offered jokes that his “crash course” in politics had already had too many crashes.

Despite his ostensible concern over the press coverage, the controversies have elevated his name recognition and en-hanced his reputation as a straight shooter. His immediate campaign goal is to win 15 percent of the votes at the state Democratic convention in June so he can have his name on the ballot for the September primary.

In the rancorous political climate of Massachusetts today, Silber’s scorched-earth rhetoric could be an elixir for the state’s angry voters.

“I’m an outsider because I’ve got the perspective of a person who’s never made his living on the back of the taxpayer,” Silber said. “And I know just how outraged the taxpayer can get.”

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