|During his presidency at BU, he drew the ire of students and professors for his tight—some say oppressive—oversight.|
S. Paul Reville, the chairman of the Education Reform Review Commission, a group appointed by Gov. Weld to monitor the law's progress, laments what he sees as the board's "steady drumbeat of negativism."
"I don't want to get into finger pointing. But what we need is leadership that inspires and uplifts, someone who brings people together," Reville says. "Dr. Silber has brought some good things to the board, but he could move things a long way if there were fewer pronouncements about what's wrong [with schools] and how things ought to be. Education reform involves tens of thousands of educators, and the atmosphere in the field is one of apprehension and anxiety."
John Robert Silber was the second son born into a middle-class family in San Antonio in 1926. His mother was a teacher, and his father a German-born architect who built churches throughout Texas. Although raised a Presbyterian, Silber discovered as an adult that his father's family was Jewish and that he had relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Silber, who was born with a right arm that stops at the elbow, attended public schools and went on to study at Trinity University in San Antonio. There he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and fine arts and met his future wife, the former Kathryn Underwood, a fellow philosophy student whom he married in 1947 and with whom he shares eight children and 19 grandchildren.
He earned a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1956, and taught at Yale before joining the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin in 1955. He eventually became chairman of the department and, in 1967, dean of the college of arts and sciences.
As dean, he clashed with the board of regents over a plan to divide the college of arts and sciences into three schools, and in 1970 he was asked to resign. He was lured almost immediately to Boston University, where he served as president for more than a quarter-century before stepping down in June 1996 to accept the newly created job of chancellor.
At BU, he was among the highest-paid college presidents in the nation, earning $565,000 in salary and benefits for the 1993-94 school year, according to a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education. As chancellor, he receives the same compensation, said BU spokesman Kevin R. Carleton. Silber's position on the state board is unpaid.
Like his tenure on the Massachusetts board and deanship in Texas, his high-profile reign at Boston University and bid for governor both encountered memorable bumps in the road--each intensified by Silber's trademark, headline-making flare-ups, commonly referred to as "Silber shockers."
|He is also passionate and even gushy about "little kids" and the power of education.|
During his presidency at BU, for example, he drew the ire of students and professors for his tight--some say oppressive--oversight and for views that were anything but politically correct.
In his 1989 book Straight Shooting, for example, Silber writes that "abortion is homicide," and that "women who incur heavy debt while in college bring negative dowries to their marriages."
And in a 1993 letter responding to faculty concerns about academic freedom, Silber explained that "some versions of critical theory, radical feminism and multiculturalism, among other intellectual positions, are ideological in character and inhospitable to free intellectual inquiry."
During his bid for governor seven years ago, he was accused of insulting blacks and women. And he battled it out on television during an interview at his home with a popular local news broadcaster and then on CBS' "Face the Nation" with moderator Lesley Stahl. His style is widely regarded as having cost him the election, in which Weld won 50 percent of the vote to Silber's 47 percent.
"Silber shockers" continue to make headlines. Last January, for example, in an interview with a New Bedford, Mass., newspaper, Silber was quoted as having said that "some of the things that pass for learning disabilities used to be called stupidity," and that, before feminism, women were limited in career options to "secretary, teacher, [or] prostitute."
Silber, though, makes no apologies for his plainspokenness. The problem is not his choice of words, he insists, but has and continues to be the news media, which throughout his career have misinterpreted what he says and misrepresented who he is.
"The distortion continues," he says. "Censorship by the press goes on. ... The caricature [is] that I am not funny, that I am intense, that I am misanthropic, et cetera. ... That's the way the game is played."
Silber shockers are not the order of business, however, during an hourlong interview in his spacious, turn-of-the-century townhouse office. The high-ceilinged, three-story space adorned with old artwork and dark wood is formal, as is Silber's manner on this fall day.
Some of his trademark intensity shows during the session--his jaw clenches and voice rises as he makes a few of his most ardent points--but he is also passionate and even gushy about "little kids" and the power of education.
And he is at times charming, moving effortlessly from board politics to Walt Whitman, from international education standards to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
|At an age when most people turn their thoughts to beaches and golf, Silber is still putting in 16-hour workdays.|
While Silber concedes that he, too, is unhappy with the slow pace of school reform in Massachusetts, he denies that the state board is to blame. Silber's frustration, it seems, is not with the workings of the board itself, which he praises as hardworking and knowledgeable, and not with the Education Reform Act, which he lauds. Instead, he faults the legislature and the limitations placed on his and the board's power.
Lawmakers, he says, have been cowed by special interests. He maintains that they have underfunded early-childhood-education initiatives because of the political force of for-profit day-care centers, and backed away from plans to abolish teacher tenure and to open new charter schools because of opposition from the teachers' unions.
But lawmakers deny that they've gotten in the way of reform.
"Sometimes Dr. Silber thinks the only authority you need is his authority," says Rep. Lane of the education committee. The legislature "listens to the public, leavening some of Dr. Silber's proposals."
Silber, who is sometimes called Massachusetts' "education czar," says he wishes the nickname were more accurate.
"What really irritates me is when they refer to me as the education czar," he says. "Give me the power of a czar, and we'll have this problem solved in no time."
Members of the board of education who were willing to speak on the record--several phone calls went unreturned--acknowledged that they don't always agree with their forthright chairman on policy, but they praised his leadership and defended his combativeness.
"He was appointed to shake up the education establishment, and there's no question that he does that," says James A. Peyser, a board member and the executive director of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Boston. "His style is completely different than authors of the education reform, and I'm all for it.
"He is provocative because he speaks his mind. We've had leaders in the past who were in the business of smoothing ruffled feathers in order to create a consensus, which typically favors the status quo," Peyser continues. "If what's needed is for everybody to make friends and feel good, he's not the right guy."
Board member Stanley Z. Koplik says Silber's confrontational style enhances debate by prompting board members and guests to "do their homework and come prepared."
"I like the activist approach that John Silber has brought to the board," Koplik, the chancellor of the state board of higher education, says. "He has an impatience for foolishness and much of the tradition of academic and pedagogical jargon."
At an age when most people turn their thoughts to beaches and golf, Silber is still putting in 16-hour workdays between BU and the state department of education.
Asked how long he plans on staying on the board, he jokes, "Oh maybe two more minutes." Then, he adds without a hint of hesitation in his voice, "If I could find someone who I thought would do the job as well or work as hard at it as I do, the first thing I would do is go to the governor's office and say, 'I got your man, now get me the hell out of here.'"