Dr. John Silber was my nemesis: the Darth Vader to my Luke Skywalker, the Voldemort to my Harry Potter and the authoritarian university president to my anti-apartheid and free speech college self. There has been a great disturbance in the Force and I find myself surprisingly deeply moved by the loss of Dr. Silber.
Yes, he tried to expel me from the dorms and then from the university itself for a simple, yet charged, act of hanging a series of “divest” banners from my dorm window.
Yes, he did set the BU police to spy on us protesters. Howard Zinn and other faculty had reason to believe their offices were bugged. During my two-week hunger strike for divestment, he brazenly told The Daily Free Press, the college daily, that I was having a temper tantrum and that he hoped I died. He used every weapon in the university’s arsenal to undermine divestment, including bestowing a mid-year honorary degree to Zulu chief Buthelezi, a South African leader who supported the Reagan policy of “constructive engagement” and opposed economic pressure on the apartheid regime.
Even so, campuses across the United States ignited a national debate about sanctions, catalyzing Congress to pass legislation. President Reagan vetoed the sanctions, and Congress, in an unprecedented act during Reagan’s first term, over-turned the veto. Reagan was on the wrong side of history, and so was Silber.
There was a scheduled meeting of the BU Trustees to consider divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. Silber couldn’t keep the issue off the agenda but he could control the calendar. And in a cynical and brilliant move, he rescheduled the key meeting to take place during finals, when few pesky students would take up banners against him and his investment policy.
We had to quickly change tactics as well, leading to a major showdown that also exposed a more honorable and human part of Dr. Silber. I published a column in the Daily Free Press asking all students who opposed Dr. Silber’s South African policies to prepare for finals while sitting on the floor of Mugar Library.
It was a beautiful sight to see. Yet as the night progressed, there were fewer and fewer students in the library, leaving about 30 of us who refused to leave the building at the midnight closing time. The police and TV cameras were outside. Dr. Silber sent in the Dean of Students to try to negotiate an orderly exit or we would face arrest and suspension. I was on full scholarship and feared the consequences but my fellow activists were thankfully courageous and we all stayed united and ready to face the police. So Dr. Silber then sent in BU Hillel Director Rabbi Joseph Pollack to negotiate a peaceful exit. We had two conditions: Amnesty for all students for the take-over of the library and a substantive meeting with Dr. Silber to discuss the divestment issue ahead of his Board meeting.
He honored both. I remember the follow up meeting, where we presented our case for divestment. At a certain point he looked at me, his thick black frame glasses half-way down his nose, and he realized that he didn’t just have a crisis to deal with, he also had a teaching moment. His tone changed, and while neither side won over the other, a real policy discussion took place, without his legendary vitriol.
Dr. Silber loved the intellectual tussle. He loved people who showed as much chutzpah and courage and conviction as he. He was infuriated when he couldn’t get his own way on his own campus, which was almost never. But deep inside, he knew he was giving me and others the best education of our lifetimes, in and out of the classroom.
Yet that didn’t stop him from wanting me expelled from the university for hanging the divestment banners. The anti-apartheid movement on campus cut away at his authority and he didn’t like negative press coverage. The courts, however, ruled in our favor: first a temporary injunction protecting me from being expelled and then a precedent-setting decision granting free speech rights to individuals at all private institutions in the Bay State.
And when we kicked butt in Abramowitz et al vs. Boston University, Dr. Silber didn’t contest the verdict nor appeal it. Instead, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to law school. Classy.
May he rest in peace and his memory be a blessing.