Silber a transformer or image maker? Too soon to tell

 Longtime Boston University president John Silber died Thursday.
boston globe/file 1999
Longtime Boston University president John Silber died Thursday.

We’ll need a little time and detachment before anyone can really evaluate John Silber’s contribution (“John Silber, terrain-changing BU leader, political force, dies,” Page A1, Sept. 28). Did he “transform” Boston University? He certainly convinced everyone that he did. He might have been more interested in branding the institution — and himself.

He insisted that BU was nothing until he arrived. Actually, he destroyed a world-class English department, drove professor Helen Vendler to Harvard, wrecked much of the humanities, and proclaimed that he had built the third great research university on the Charles River.

But BU is still what it was: a good, second-tier private university, ranked 51st by the ever-popular US NEWS & WORLD REPORT listings, along with Tulane and George Washington — “safe” harbors for many students seeking a place in an urban university. It has some fine research departments; it had others before Silber arrived.


He raised a great deal of cash, left BU far behind other institutions in endowment, invested and lost a fortune in a failed pharmaceutical venture, and gave BU, and himself, an enormous visibility.

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Time will tell if he was actually a transformer or an image maker.

Sol Gittleman


The writer was provost at Tufts University from 1981 until 2002, and has been a faculty member since 1964.