A champion of high academic standards and scholar of the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Dr. Silber was Boston University’s president from 1971 to 1996 and then its chancellor until 2003. In that span, the university morphed from a lightly regarded commuter school, in the shadow of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to a major research institution in its own right.
“He was notoriously difficult and prickly and outspoken,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,600 college and university presidents. “But his legacy was an extraordinary institution that wasn’t there before.” Hartle called Dr. Silber “one of the best-known and most visible college presidents of the last 50 years.”
Over his decades in public life, Dr. Silber dominated university politics — often crushing dissenters — and then waded into politics with a blunt tongue that drew national attention.
In his 1990 campaign for governor, Dr. Silber suggested that liberal social policies had turned Massachusetts into a “welfare magnet” for “people who are accustomed to living in the tropical climate.” He also questioned the use of costly medical interventions for elderly people about to die. “When you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go,” he said.
His message, questioning what he called the party’s “social engineers,” helped him win an upset victory that year in the Democratic primary. But Dr. Silber narrowly lost to Republican William Weld, a former federal prosecutor. Analysts said a possible factor was Dr. Silber’s outburst at a popular television interviewer when she asked him about his faults shortly before the election. In academia, Dr. Silber was no less confrontational.
Dr. Silber stared down 10 deans and three-quarters of the faculty assembly in 1976 who called for his resignation because they were unhappy with his autocratic style. The university’s board of trustees stood by him.
During the Vietnam War, Dr. Silber called in police to break up student protests over military recruiting. He also weathered a faculty strike and clashes with staff over budget cuts and personnel policies.
“You know the expression ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg’?” said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University who served as an administrator under Dr. Silber in Boston in the 1970s. “John Silber made a two-egg omelet breaking 20 eggs. He was a change agent of the most dramatic sort. Very in-your-face.”
Trachtenberg recalled one meeting in which Dr. Silber belittled a university dean in front of peers. Dr. Silber, Trachtenberg said, had a yen “to be the smartest man in the room,” sometimes to a fault.