Past UT official dies, leaves legacy of leadership and education across country

Bobby Blanchard

John Silber died Thursday morning of kidney failure at the age of 86. He worked at the University from 1957 to 1970 before Frank Erwin fired him because he opposed Erwin’s plan to reorganize the College of Arts and Sciences.

Silber started as a professor in 1957, became the chair of the philosophy department in 1962 and then served as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences beginning in 1967. Silber became the president of Boston University after Frank Erwin fired him. There, BU professor James Post said Silber was committed to improving the quality of education BU offered. Silber served as BU’s president from 1971 to 1996 and as chancellor from 1996 to 2003.

“He was a transformative leader,” Post said. “Some of the teaching I do is around leadership in institutions, and we use the phrase a lot this day about being a transformative leader. John Silber was a transformative leader before there was a term for it.”

At BU, Post said Silber recruited top-notch faculty members to improve the quality of education. Silber was given the job to fix what, Post said, was at the time a “broken institution.” He replaced the heads of many departments, which made him a source of controversy again. In his first few years at BU, faculty members tried to get Silber fired, but he remained at BU until 2003. On Thursday, BU dedicated the top of its website’s home page to Silber.

At UT, Erwin fired Silber because he opposed Erwin’s plan to reorganize the College of Arts and Sciences by dividing it into four parts.

According to The Daily Texan archives, Erwin said to Silber July 24, 1970: “John, you are very intelligent, articulate and hardworking. Because of these qualities, you make some people in higher education nervous. That is why you must be resigned or removed.”

Silber refused to resign and was fired. The Texan went on to draft a petition in support of Silber, but he was never reinstated.

Post said he met Silber upon being hired as a new faculty member in the ‘70s, and his impressions of Silber changed over time.

“At the beginning, I didn’t have any direct contact with him, so I only observed him at a distance. He seemed very brash and very autocratic,” Post said. “Over time I got to understand he was a very dedicated educator and very determined to improve the quality of the university and the quality of education in general.”

Post said Silber came to terms with his firing from UT easily and long ago.

“He thought his firing was the price of being direct and being forthright,” Post said. “He did say at one time he could have been more politically correct, but that was not his nature and it would not have served the institution very well.”

Post said even at BU, Silber was outspoken and not afraid to be an agent of change.

Douglas Sears, BU’s vice president and chief of staff for the president, said in a press statement that he respected Silber’s work ethic and sense of humor.

Silber retired in 2003 from his position as BU chancellor but continued to live on campus and remained a part of the university.

Silber is survived by his daughters, Rachel Devlin, Martha Hathaway, Judith Ballan, Alexandra Silber, Ruth Belmonte and Caroline Lavender; his son, Charles Hiett; his brother, Paul Silber; 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Former BU president dies, leaving history of controversy