John R. Silber led a very public life, overseeing the transformation of Boston University, nearly becoming governor of Massachusetts, and getting into so many verbal scrapes with critics that his penchant for provocative rejoinders even had a name, the “Silber shocker.”
But FBI agents who did background checks on Silber in the 1980s managed to unearth a few secrets, sort of: In 1947, for example, Silber got a B in Old Testament history and literature at Yale Divinity School, and two years later he failed a graduate course at the University of Texas at Austin.
A 516-page FBI file, compiled when Silber was appointed to three presidential panels during the Reagan administration, is packed with testimonials to the irascible Silber’s patriotism, work ethic, dedication to family, and even his legendary stubbornness. Unlike another BU luminary, Martin Luther King Jr., who was the subject of a controversial 17,000-page FBI file, Silber’s dossier is downright flattering.
“The appointee is of very, very fine character, a great scholar, very patriotic . . . and a strong supporter of national defense and this nation’s present administration,” an FBI interviewer wrote in paraphrasing the opinion of Arthur Metcalf, chairman of BU’s board of trustees, in 1983. “The only criticism [Metcalf] has concerning the appointee is the appointee’s lack of patience with ‘suffering fools.’ ”
Of course, the file suggests that agents did not speak with many Silber critics, such as leftist historian and BU faculty member Howard Zinn, who twice helped lead faculty votes that unsuccessfully attempted to oust Silber as president. Silber once called Zinn a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.” About the only substantive concern the FBI raises about Silber is that he may have strong-armed BU personnel to support then-Boston Mayor Kevin White in the 1970s.
But the file, released to the Boston-based public records group MuckRock after a formal records request, provides an unusual window into what associates of Silber, who died in 2012, said about him when they could have faced serious consequences for not telling the truth.
The FBI conducted the extensive checks on Silber in 1983 and again in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan appointed Silber to three different commissions, including the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America.
FBI agents checked credit databases, arrest records, and court files from Boston to San Francisco for any derogatory information. Agents also conducted dozens of interviews with Silber’s neighbors, friends, and employees.
Strikingly, for a man involved in so many controversies, there’s not a single purely negative report in the file.
Jon Westling, who was associate provost under Silber and later served as BU president from 1996 to 2002, reported that Silber was not only “renowned as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the philosopher Immanuel Kant,” but also “a remarkably hard worker, remarkably educated and remarkably energetic, working 12 hours per day, seven days per week while managing to maintain a fine family life.”
Many of those interviewed acknowledged that Silber had vocal critics among the BU faculty, but each came down decidedly in favor of his commission appointments.
John McElwee, who was at the time chairman of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. and a 10-year acquaintance of Silber, cautioned that the BU president was “perhaps a bit controversial.” And an anonymous recommender admitted that Silber could be “quite abrasive” and ran BU “in a very autocratic method.”
The main personal criticism against Silber, according to those questioned, was his “low boiling point.” The same anonymous interviewee qualified his recommendation, admitting that he could not support Silber’s nomination “if the position calls for diplomacy.”
In 1990, Silber’s penchant for lashing out at critics was widely viewed as a factor in his narrow loss to Republican William Weld in the gubernatorial race.
The generally glowing tone of Silber’s FBI file contrasts to investigations of King, whose politics were less conservative. The 1955 graduate of BU’s School of Theology endured years of heavy surveillance, including wiretaps by FBI agents in a failed attempt to prove he was a communist.
For more than 40 years as president and then chancellor at BU, Silber consistently pushed expansion and helped transform it from a commuter school to a residential institution with global influence. But the file makes no mention of faculty opposition to many of Silber’s moves, though one interview transcript notes that Silber endured “the political unrest in the early 1970s and the unionization of professors.”
Similarly, the FBI’s investigation gave little attention to Silber’s disagreements with BU students over free speech issues, including the shutdown of the student radio station and one campus newspaper.
In the end, Silber sailed through both background checks in 1983 and 1987 and was awarded top-secret security clearance by the FBI.
Shawn Musgrave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.