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Jon Westling, former president of Boston University, dies at 78

Mr. Westling (right) was inaugurated as BU president with a little help from his predecessor, John Silber.
Mr. Westling (right) was inaugurated as BU president with a little help from his predecessor, John Silber.WILSON, MARK GLOBE STAFF PHOTO

A former Rhodes scholar who studied medieval history at Oxford University in England, Jon Westling was an avid motorcycle rider whose appreciation for culture wasn’t confined to works from past centuries.

When Mr. Westling became Boston University’s president, he joined those dancing while legendary blues guitarist B.B. King performed as part of the 1996 inauguration festivities.

“I’ve been a B.B. King fan for 30 years,” Mr. Westling told the Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper.

Mr. Westling, who previously had twice served as BU’s interim president, stepped down as president in 2002. He was 78 when he died at home on Jan. 15, his family said in a death notice.

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Robert A. Brown, BU’s current president, said in a letter to university leaders that Mr. Westling played a “significant role in the history of Boston University.”

Mr. Westling was “a tireless worker with a powerful intellect,” Richard Towle, a former BU senior vice president, said as part of a collection of tributes gathered on a university website.

“As president, he launched a comprehensive effort to improve the quality of all services to students, including the recruitment of top-notch faculty members and a new effort to listen to the needs of students in the areas of administrative services and student life,” Towle said.

Mr. Westling previously had been provost and executive vice president under John Silber, the longtime BU president who preceded him.

When BU announced in 1995 that Mr. Westling would become the next president, Silber called him “a colleague who not only shared but frequently enlarged and deepened my vision for Boston University, and whose intelligence, whose energy, and whose judgment enabled me to leverage my own abilities.”

Mr. Westling was a rarity among leaders of major universities in that he didn’t a master’s or a doctoral degree.

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“I do not pretend to be a scholar. I don’t have ambitions to do original research … but I am an intellectual and I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of scholarship,” he said in 1995

Like Silber, his mentor, Mr. Westling engendered controversy as an administrator.

Diana Lam, then superintendent of Chelsea’s schools, said in a February 1990 speech at Chelsea High School that South African activist Nelson Mandela was a good role model for students. Mandela, who became that country’s first Black president four years later, was about to be released after having being imprisoned for 27 years.

Mr. Westling, then acting president of BU, which was managing Chelsea’s schools, criticized Lam in a letter, saying Mandela “is certainly a political prisoner who was originally jailed for his role in leading a movement against an unjust political and social system. But he is also an individual who has advocated violence.”

Mr. Westling’s letter drew widespread criticism. Several days later, he told the Daily Free Press that his comments to Lam had “missed the mark” and that “I might well have written a different letter if I had written after Mandela” made a speech, upon being released from prison, in which he denounced violence.

In 1995, Mr. Westling was a force behind a BU policy change that toughened requirements for learning disabled students.

He complained in interviews and speeches about a student he dubbed “somnolent Samantha,” whom he said had requested unreasonable accommodations. But during a lawsuit filed against BU by learning disabled students, he acknowledged that “Samantha” was his own fictional creation.

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US District Judge Patti B. Saris ruled in favor of the students in 1997 and ordered BU to modify certain requirements for them.

Mr. Westling, whom Silber had recruited to BU in 1974, returned to teaching medieval history in 2002. He was with the university 46 years.

Born in Yakima, Wash., Mr. Westling attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., on a scholarship. A student body president and civil rights activist, he spent nearly two weeks in jail for demonstrating against segregation in Virginia, according to Reed Magazine.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree and studying at Oxford, Mr. Westling taught at Centre College in Kentucky, Reed, and at the University of California Irvine before going to BU.

According to the death notice his family placed, Mr. Westling’s survivors include three children, Emma of Stoneham, Matthew of Boston, and Andrew of El Segundo, Calif.; and his former wife, Elizabeth of Brookline.

The family hopes to announce a memorial service at BU’s Marsh Chapel later this year.

When BU announced that Mr. Westling would become the university’s next president, he said in a press conference that he wanted scholarship to flourish there:

“We are here to create an environment in which we can pursue truth and freedom, in which we can educate the next generation of men and women, and in which we can make available the remarkable talents of the faculty and staff of BU … to return to society something of importance and value.”

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Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.