John Silber was such a ferocious personality, an iconoclast who left bruised victims and dazed admirers in his wake, that his fellow Bostonians are destined to be debating his legacy for a long time. But there can be no doubt about Silber’s accomplishments. Boston University looms larger in the world of academia because of his exertions as president and chancellor for three decades. Massachusetts leads the nation in education reform partly because of his belief in combining rigorous standardized testing with greater classroom resources. Could it all have been done with less rancor and more accommodation? Perhaps, but conciliation wasn’t in the Silber repertoire.
Despite being an avowed academic traditionalist, Silber, who died Thursday at 86, was also a liberal at heart. He believed that powerful institutions, including the government, could transform people’s lives, and he set out to help them do so. He had little patience for process, and could be autocratic. He sought to improve BU’s prestige, bringing in more world-class professors, even as he disdained the notion of consulting the faculty on how to run the university. He endeavored to recruit ever-stronger and more academically gifted students, but loudly rejected their activism and desire to reshape the campus culture.
Silber was born with a withered right arm, and his Texas upbringing was surely more difficult because of this birth defect. He emerged with both the self-reliance and the insecurity of a perpetual outsider. His furious attacks on “intellectual fads” and political correctness sometimes seemed directed at clubs that wouldn’t admit him. While he differed strongly with liberal advocacy groups, he often seemed to share their aims: He wanted to tear down power structures so he could rebuild them himself.
Silber almost found his moment in 1990, when Massachusetts was in the grip of an economic crisis. Having cultivated close relations with legislative leaders, he ran for governor as a Democratic insurgent. He defeated two better-known politicians for the party nomination, and was the favorite for the general election in November. But his abrasiveness caught up with him. Voters opted narrowly for the more jovial Republican, William Weld.
Silber’s 1990 platform, which was heavy on reform of government programs from health care to housing to education, reflected both his intellectual curiosity and his damn-the-critics style of leadership. It was decades ahead of its time. Weld, to his credit, recognized Silber’s commitment to K-12 education and put him in charge of establishing the statewide MCAS test and other classroom reforms. Silber pushed through the changes and proclaimed that students would be better for them. He was right, though the MCAS, like its architect, is more respected than beloved. It emphasizes certain subjects at the expense of others, and serves as an ambitious, if imperfect, vehicle for excellence. Its greatest service is as a sometimes grating reminder of the need to do better.