Silber was born in San Antonio, Texas, the second son of Paul George Silber, an immigrant architect from Germany, and Jewell (née Joslin) Silber, a Texas-born elementary school teacher. Both of his parents were Presbyterians. As an adult, he learned that his father’s side of the family was Jewish and that his aunt had been killed at Auschwitz. His father had never said anything about it.
Silber’s father owned an architectural practice which collapsed during the Great Depression. John Silber graduated from Jefferson High School in San Antonio in 1943, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and played trumpet in the HS Band. At Trinity University in San Antonio, he double-majored in fine arts and philosophy. In the fall of 1943, as a freshman at Trinity, he met a sophomore named Kathryn Underwood, daughter of farmers from Normanna, Texas. The couple were engaged in January 1946 and married on July 12, 1947. Silber graduated summa cum laude from Trinity in June 1947. Silber and his wife had eight children, one son and six daughters by birth and one son by adoption. Their first-born son and daughter were born before 1955. Five more daughters were born over the next eleven years. Their first-born son, David Silber, died of AIDS at age 41 at their home in December 1994.
Silber received his M.A. in 1952 and worked first as a teaching assistant and then as an instructor while pursuing a doctoral degree. Peter H. Hare, Philosophy Professor Emeritus, at SUNY State University of New York at Buffalo remembers Silber as a teaching assistant at Yale in the mid-1950s while Hare was still an undergraduate. Hare wrote, “George Schrader was the lecturer in the introductory course where John Silber was the TA leading my discussion section. Silber, a rabid Kantian, was the person with whom I had my first heated philosophical arguments as an adult.” In 1959, Silber earned a Fulbright scholarship, which enabled him to travel to West Germany to teach at the University of Bonn for a year. It was there that he learned of his father’s Jewish heritage.
Silber’s first full-time faculty job was at University of Texas at Austin (UT) where he chaired the Philosophy department from 1962–1967. Larry Hickman, Director, Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale recalls his time as a student in philosophy at UT. “The department chairs during those years, John Silber and Irwin C. Lieb, were busy using Texas oil money to collect the very best faculty and graduate students they could find.” While at UT, Silber founded the Texas society to abolish capital punishment. In 1967, Silber became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UT. Three years later, in a widely publicized firing, Silber was removed as Dean in 1970 by the UT Regents Chairman Frank Craig Erwin, Jr.
Silber was named president of Boston University (BU) on December 17, 1970. He took office the following month. With an annual salary that reached $800,000, Silber ranked as one of the highest paid college presidents in the country. He took a one-year leave of absence from BU in 1987, and then again in 1990 when he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat. He returned to his position at BU after losing the election to William Weld. In 1996, he was named university chancellor after stepping down as president. That same year he was appointed by William Weld to serve as head of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Among Silber’s recruits to the Boston University faculty were the author Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel, writer and concentration camp survivor.
Under Silber, Boston University increased in size but questions about his leadership style caused splits among faculty and alumni. In his early days as BU President, Silber accused the faculty of mediocrity and the students of fostering anarchy, and they, in turn, accused him of tyrannical rule. Essentially, in response to the Silber administration, the faculty organized a union in 1974 and the following year voted to affiliate with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Fritz Ringer, a BU faculty member, served as president of the BU chapter of the AAUP for eight years. According to Perspectives Online, the publication of the American Historical Association, “…at a time when the BU president (Silber) was running roughshod over faculty rights, Fritz Ringer bravely and vigorously championed the principles of academic freedom.”
Initially, the Silber administration would not negotiate with the union, and in 1976 the refusal was challenged in a lawsuit. Two-thirds of the faculty and deans demanded the board of trustees fire Silber. The board refused. In 1978 the courts decided in favor of the AAUP position and Boston University was forced to negotiate. The faculty conducted a brief strike in 1979 which was followed by a clerical workers’ walkout in which several faculty members refused to cross the picket line. Silber charged five of these faculty members with negligence and moved to have them disciplined. At that point faculty members throughout Boston signed a petition to have Silber removed.
Silber was especially visible for confrontations with radical historian Howard Zinn. In one incident, Zinn arranged to take a sabbatical and teach in Paris, with Herbert Marcuse teaching at BU in the meantime. Silber vetoed the move. Silber also prevented Zinn from receiving pay raises and promotions over a number of years. In 1982, the AAUP intervened on Zinn’s behalf, eventually forcing Silber to compensate Zinn for back pay. In 1987 the courts ruled that faculty in the local AAUP chapter were “managerial” employees, and therefore could not engage in collective bargaining.
Silber advocated integration at the University of Texas, and was the first person to chair the Texas Society to Abolish Capital Punishment. He also promoted Operation Head Start, an early education program for preschoolers.
In the Massachusetts gubernatorial election of 1990 Silber ran for Governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat. His outsider status as well as his outspoken and combative style were at first seen as advantages in a year in which voters were disenchanted with the Democratic Party establishment. As the Democratic nominee, Silber faced Republican William Weld. Silber’s angry personality, which appalled many voters, coupled with Weld’s socially liberal views helped Weld in the race. During the gubernatorial race, Silber regularly overreacted to questions from the press. These overreactions came to be known as “Silber shockers”. On the campaign trail he called Massachusetts a “welfare magnet” and proposed cutting off benefits for unmarried mothers who have a second child while still on public aid. He questioned saving the lives of terminally ill elderly people, quoting Shakespeare and saying that “when you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go.”
He said that the feminist Gloria Steinem, the black Muslim leader, Louis Farrakhan, and white supremacists are “the kind of people I wouldn’t appoint as judges.” In a key interview late in the campaign, Silber was asked by WCVB-TV newscaster Natalie Jacobson to name his weaknesses, and he snarled back that finding his weaknesses was her job, and he did not need to list them for her. After this performance, Silber’s poll numbers declined rapidly. Ultimately, Weld was able to hold on to a significant portion of the Republican base while appealing to large numbers of Democrats and left-of-center independents, enabling him to defeat Silber by four points. Weld became the first Republican to serve as governor since 1974.
Boston University announced Silber’s death on September 27, 2012. He was 86. At a memorial service on November 29, 2012 the writer Tom Wolfe spoke to the 750 people who gathered, saying that Silber was a man who “couldn’t bring himself to flatter.”
- August, 15, 1926
- San Antonio, Texas
- September, 27, 2012
- Brookline, Massachusetts