By Keith Whitaker
John Silber was not a humble man. In 1996, when he moved up from the presidency of Boston University to the chancellorship, he likened his successor to Joshua and himself to Moses, the only man, according to the Hebrew Bible, who saw God face to face.
Today it's hard to image a college or university president mattering the way Dr. Silber did then, to many within and without academia. Teresa Sullivan's ouster and reinstatement at the University of Virginia grabbed national attention, but no one claims her leadership is greatly good or bad. Now as in the past, most presidents exist to cast a glow of learning over mundane activities such as placating faculty, blessing five-year plans, and, above all, raising money.
When I worked for him, with the comical title of "Special Assistant for Covert Operations," Dr. Silber described himself in his Texan growl as zookeeper to some of the most rambunctious critters on earth. But far from a mere caretaker, Silber took a stand--often athwart history--for the sake of excellence. He offers an example of how an elitist can actually thrive within a democracy.
Recalling the 'Poor Little Guy'
Though he was a noted student of Kantian philosophy, his success did not depend solely on intellectual firepower. Many people imagined he was an ogre; in fact, he was a charmer. He loved jokes and was a gifted artist. Once I was filing some papers and found posters he had designed 30 years before for his best friend Bill Arrowsmith's debut of Aristophanes' Birds, "Cooked up Fresh." He had presence--and he knew it. And he could combine natural superiority with kindness. For many years an amiable chap named would work in Dr. Silber's office for a few months, disappear for a stretch, and then just as suddenly reappear. Dr. Silber would take him right in, no questions asked. After one disappearance, we learned that he had done himself in. "Poor little guy," Dr. Silber said. He didn't seem to recall that the "little guy" was several inches taller than he.
All these non-intellectual qualities help explain how he came within a hair's breadth of winning the Massachusetts governor's race in 1990. Of course, there was also his quality of Straight Shooting, as his bestseller proclaimed. He loved to mock others with the truth. I met him first at new student orientation at BU, where he reminded us that we were there because we were ignorant. As proof he predicted that, by year's end, a few of us would be removed from the student body by failing to look both ways when crossing Commonwealth Avenue. Cruel? Perhaps. Parents certainly gasped--just the same way the pundits did when he said of rising Medicare costs, "When you're ripe, it's time to go." But many of us teen-agers found a welcome respect in his harshness as compared to the soothing words of our professional coddlers and helicopter parents.
Silber was great-souled, which meant that he admitted great flaws among his virtues. (He didn't, however, care for others pointing out those flaws.) As another culture critic, Dwight Macdonald, said of himself, Silber was sounder in his "no's" than in his "yes's." My sense is that he believed courage is the deepest virtue, and so he regularly succumbed to con-men. As he said of one of them, "He was so confident; I felt sure he must be telling the truth." Conversely, he hated perceived timidity. One of his ablest lieutenants was a quiet, introspective soul. Dr. Silber labeled him a "second-stringer" and unfortunately favored sycophants who only ended up bringing him woe.
A Rover, Not a Settler
As the governor's race revealed, like many academicians, Dr. Silber had political dreams, and he was disappointed in them. He was a New Deal Democrat who, by persisting in his views, ended up being called a conservative. He never truly got the Reagan Revolution, though he thought he could demand the office of Secretary of Education. When his student Bill Bennett got the job instead, Dr. Silber complained that the sorcerer had been upstaged by his apprentice. He tried the old charm a few years later on Bill Clinton, and left his audience sure he had the job. But he had been out-schmoozed by the best of them. In truth, as FDR had recognized about Robert Maynard Hutchins decades before, Dr. Silber was not a "team-player." Tapping him would have been like carrying a live grenade into the cabinet.
Perhaps his old-style liberalism helps explain why Dr. Silber was also, like Moses, a rover not a settler. He loved to fight the feminists, gay activists, anti-nukes folks, anti-anti-Communists, and all shades of the politically correct. But while he won the arguments he lost the war. Today Boston University is just as good as any top-tier university--which is to say that it celebrates all the usual foolishness that top-tier universities do.
When I last saw Dr. Silber, he complained to me that his life had been a failure: he felt, he said with characteristic modesty, like Pericles watching Athens decline. (I reminded him that Pericles had died of the plague in 429 BC, when Athens was still at its height. Didn't seem to help.) I don't think he was a failure, and I told him so. In a world of phonies, he was the real thing. Amid academics who just played with words, he loved arguing because he believed it meant something. He respected youth not for what it was but what it could be--and he felt the same way about democracy. Homer says of the dead Tiresias, "He alone among the shades of Hades breathes." I imagine John Silber the same way.
Keith Whitaker, Ph.D., is a Founding Associate at Wise Counsel Research Associates.