Throughout his only intermittently peaceful 12-year tenure as president of Boston University, John R. Silber has been on a first-name basis with controversy. Silber, an outspoken advocate of nuclear power, has been struck about as often as General Motors. Whatever else, he is not bashful.

On March 1, Silber was answering questions from some students. He was asked his opnion of the proposed federal rule to deny federal loans or grants to college students who fail to register for the military draft, as required by law. Breaking ranks with the leaders of Harvard, Darmouth and Yale, Silber answered: "No one who refuses to obey the laws of the society that nurtures and protects him should expect to receive all the privileges extended to law-abiding citizens."

Arrayed against Silber are the considerable endowments and continuing prestige of a number of Ivy League schools that have pledged to replace the federal aid lost to their students who fail to register.

Harvard and other schools can explain to their own communities why they choose to give their limited scholarship funds to law-breaking students. Some critics of the new rule have framed their opposition in the elevated terms of civil disobedience, certainly an established tactic in the American civil rights movement. Civil disobedience includes a public breaking of the law where the law-breaker, by submitting to punishment, seeks to set a moral example that will persuade the majority to change a law or practice. That is clearly not the case in Cambridge or New Haven, where law- breaking will carry with it no penalty or inconvenience.

In order to qualify for federal aid now, the student must establish that he or she is enrolled at least half- time, is in a degree-granting program, making satisfactory grades, and meets the prescribed needs test. Each school maintains a student aid office. The new rule would require that the student seeking aid provide a letter from Selective Service stating that he has registered as required by law, which letter would be added to the existing file.

Opponents of the new rule charge that this one additional form will impose an administrative burden as well as a law enforcement responsibility upon the colleges. Somehow, the federally mandated duties of the colleges in the areas of affirmative action and equal employment were never viewed as onerous by these same opponents of the new rule.

John Silber, on March 1, spoke of a different sort of duty: "Universities have an obligation to teach young Americans that they cannot accept benefits without, at the same time, accepting responsibilities that go with them." At BU, apparently there is no free lunch. As of now, across the Charles River at Harvard, things and rules are different.