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John R. Silber, the combative chairman of the Massachusetts board of education, sees his role as a burden he must carry.


Looking toward the Charles River from the antiqued elegance of his Bay Street office at Boston University, John R. Silber takes off his jacket and sighs before explaining why he feels compelled to serve at the helm of the state's school board.

"I tell you, I don't enjoy this," the Boston University chancellor and chairman of the Massachusetts board of education says of his responsibility to lead the nine-member board in implementing the state's 1993 education reform law. "This is a damned frustrating position to be in. I do this because I think it is my duty, not because it is my pleasure."

It's been nearly two years since then-Gov. William F. Weld surprised the state by appointing his one-time political rival, a Democrat whom he beat by a only few percentage points in a bitter 1990 gubernatorial campaign, to invigorate the state's $2 billion education reform measure.

The law, which is expected to be fully phased in by school year 1999-2000, addresses school funding inequities, boosts teacher training, and requires the creation of statewide learning standards and assessments in core subjects.

As the Republican governor explained it, Silber was "someone who doesn't speak plastic, someone impatient for results, someone willing to rattle the cushy coach the education monopoly has been riding in far too long."

The unlikely appointment may have necessitated an explanation, but the appointee himself did not.

Silber had gained national distinction for his 25 years at the helm of Boston University, where he was credited with greatly improving the school's financial standing, luring renowned faculty members, and generally elevating the status of the once debt-ridden and ailing private institution.

It was during his tenure as president that BU took over the management of the state's troubled Chelsea school system, a first-of-its-kind relationship that began in 1989 and is going well enough that local leaders recently extended it another five years.

Bay State voters may have hesitated about Silber's potential as governor, but his no-nonsense, back-to-the-basics philosophy for schools resonated. And by most accounts, the public and the education establishment applauded his appointment to lead the state board.

"He's always been extremely interested in quality education and one of the major pro-ponents in the country of early-childhood education," says Democratic state Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr., a co-chairman of the legislature's education committee and a former public high school teacher and principal.

"People responded to that. Much of what he stands for is good, solid stuff," Lane adds.

Silber has been a lightening rod for controversy throughout his career, drawing fire year after year for his tell-it-like-it is style.

All of which Silber, in no uncertain terms, will tell you himself.

"I've been talking about education reform for 35 to 40 years," he explains, dryly adding that "Weld did me the disservice of appointing me as chairman."

When Weld made the offer, "there was no decent way that I would refuse to take it without saying, 'Education reform is only a subject about which I speak, it is not a subject on which I act.'

"I can't do that," he says earnestly. "I've got to work at this job."

Silber, 71, says he and Weld developed a good working relationship, despite all that name-calling on the campaign trail--Silber had dubbed Weld an "orange-haired WASP," and Weld had referred to Silber as "Dr. Know-it-All."

When Weld resigned this past summer and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci became the state's acting chief executive, Silber offered his resignation. Cellucci immediately rejected it, assuring Silber that he was behind both his leadership and the education reform act.

Today, Silber says he is committed to staying on the state board "until I find it impossible, or until we get something done." The length of his term is open-ended.

Silber has been a lightning rod for controversy throughout his career, drawing fire year after year for his sometimes pugnacious, always tell-it-like-it-is style. He is an extraordinarily complex man, and colleagues and critics--most of whom can't be sure which side of the fence they are on--alternately describe him as sagacious and tyrannical, endearing and nasty.

What no one disputes, however, is that Silber is a man of broad intellect who has both the capability and opportunity to bring historic changes to Massachusetts public schools.

"John is very different from other board chairs," says Daniel S. Cheever, the president of Simmons College in Boston and a longtime supporter of both Silber and public schools. "He's one of the smartest and most colorful people I know. He has very firm opinions, and the force of his arguments can sometimes be overwhelming, but he never hesitates to take a stand."

But detractors, even while acknowledging his aptitude, question whether he has used it wisely.

"I don't question his ability or hard work," Peter Finn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, says. "But his shortcoming is he's not done much to garner support for schools."

Critics of Silber's term at the helm of the board of education say they are increasingly distressed by the chairman's diversions from the education reform law, which, they argue, have put off the measure's most crucial mandates--the implementation of statewide core-curriculum frameworks and accompanying assessments.

Silber's detractors charge that under his leadership, the board has abandoned its role as champion of the state's public school system.

The 1993 reform measure required the creation of curriculum frameworks in math, science, arts and world languages, English language arts, and history and social science. Frameworks in math, science, and arts and world languages were adopted in 1995 by a previous board. After months of vigorous debate, guidelines for English language arts were approved earlier this year, and guidelines for history and social science frameworks last June. ("With Vote Set, Mass. Board Still at Odds Over History Standards," June 11, 1997.)

Last November, in the midst of the board's difficult struggle with the frameworks, Silber blindsided members of the board, lawmakers, educators, and, perhaps most of all, students, with a proposal to make passing the General Educational Development test a mandatory requirement for all of the state's high school graduates. The GEDis usually given to high school dropouts. After months of rancor, Silber abandoned his proposal.

Despite the controversy, Silber stands by his recommendation, arguing that rather than a diversion from reform, a mandatory graduation exam such as the GED is one of its specifications.

Without such an exam, he says, "we cannot achieve the mandate of the Education Reform Act, which says that the board of education is to ensure that the academic standards of our high school graduates equal the high standards of other states and foreign countries."

Silber says the state has "made excellent progress" on reform. Responding to criticism that reform measures are overdue, he demands: "By whose standards? They did not appoint me when the Education Reform Act was passed. If they had appointed me then, we would have been way ahead of the game."

More than $1.3 billion in new state aid has flowed into schools since 1993, he says. In addition, thousands of new teachers have been hired, curriculum frameworks have been approved and assessments are being developed. Students also are now required to spend 900 hours a year at the elementary level and 990 hours annually at the high school level learning core subjects such as math, science, and English.

But Silber's detractors also charge that under his leadership, the board has abandoned its role as champion of the 950,000-student public school system, and, consequently, stirred disenchantment in the education community.

"Little attention is being paid by the board to critical issues of education reform," says Martin S. Kaplan, a Boston lawyer who preceded Silber as the chairman of the state board. "We've lost the process of everyone pulling together--lawmakers, teachers, the community. Instead, there is constant blame-throwing, a shortcoming of the present board leadership. ... Rather than working with teachers, they are blamed, and if it's not the fault of teachers, it's parents and students."

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.'"

Vol. 17, Issue 10, Page 28-32

Published in Print: November 5, 1997, as Duty-Bound
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