In September 1971, a few months after John Silber became its president, I arrived at Boston University as a freshman to attend the Division of General Education–DGE, or “Deege”, which the brochure described as “a two-year honors interdisciplinary program.” Forty-one years later, at the time of Dr. Silber’s death, I am a senior lecturer at the Boston University School of Management. To say 41 years later I am still at Boston University would imply, misleadingly, that I never left. I did–to drop out of BU after completing DGE, travel, return to BU and graduate, work, attend law school, work more–but John Silber’s force field was never far away.
To me Silber was brilliant, occasionally charming, irascible, aggressive, tough, and proud. Like most students I knew in the early 1970s, I loathed and feared him. He disdained our anti-war demonstrations and loosed the helmets, shields, clubs, and tear gas of Boston’s TPF–Tactical Police Force–to break them up. I was among dozens of students the TPF chased down Bay State Road; we were faster and escaped them by Kenmore Square. In the spring of 1974, when BU students engaged in their annual protest against the recently-announced tuition increases–back then tuition increases and anti-tuition increase protests were, like robins, harbingers of spring on the BU campus–a TV news reporter asked for Dr. Silber’s reaction. I recall that he said it’s fun and games for young primates. Have I accurately remembered this quotation’s dismissive disdain? The memory is vivid, but it’s also 38 years old. If he didn’t say it exactly like this, if the words I remember are the product of faulty synapses, those who remember Dr. Silber in those years would agree that if he didn’t say it, he could have. It sounds like him.
A decade and a half later Dr. Silber featured in one of the most remarkable meetings of my legal career. Congress Group Ventures, a real estate development company at which I worked as General Counsel, was negotiating a large, complicated real estate venture with Boston University. My boss Dean Stratouly and Dr. Silber had met alone some months earlier to paint the venture’s broad strokes, and now we were trying to fill in the details–which, as the saying goes, is where the Devil resides. A series of meetings between us lawyers had yielded more areas of disagreement than compromise, so we called a meeting of all principals.
Together in our conference room were the present or former leaders of the institutions that had most shaped my almost 20 years in Boston: my bosses Dean Stratouly and his co-owner David Gardner, Boston University President John Silber and his lawyer Bob Popeo, the most powerful partner in Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, the firm I’d left to work at Congress Group, consummate political insider and Silber confidante Kevin White, and former mayor of Boston and then-current professor at Boston University. Present also were other powerful insiders and other lawyers, including me. David Gardner, in a wheelchair due to neurological illness, sat at one end of the table. Dr. Silber, a shortened and cuffed suit-jacket sleeve covering his stump arm, sat at the other end. The meeting began with a recap of our progress-small–and disputes–significant–and it was not long before Silber and David Gardner, who was Silber’s intellectual equal, were arguing vociferously. Popeo, the combative lawyer political insiders hired when their world turned to dog doo, stepped in to ratchet back the tension and suggest topics for more fruitful discussion. White advanced his perspective on how things should unfold. The collective egos’ magnitude and personalities’ fire-power were enough to blow the windows out of the room.
We never closed that deal. Disagreements remain as to why.
In recent years I ran into Dr. Silber on the BU campus from time to time. I no longer loathed him, but he always reminded me of my shifting relationship with the school. He terminated DGE a few years after I completed the program; its interdisciplinary and counter-cultural ethos was anathema to his brand of intellectual rigor. Terminating DGE killed one of my defining links to Boston University. The University excelled, during the Silber years, at graduating students who left campus and never looked back fondly. From time to time BU sends email to DGE alumni. It comes under the heading of CGS, the College of General Studies–which, as anyone familiar with Boston University knows, is not likely to engender enthusiastic responses from alumni of DGE’s self-described honors program. BU’s low percentage of alumni contributions is a legacy that the University is managing, slowly, to eradicate. I came to the University too late to be among the faculty bruised by Silber’s rough handling over the years, but resentment still runs deep in some circles. He did not remember me, which was a blessing because remembering would involve remembering how he knew me. I know Boston University would not be the vigorous educational and research institution it is today without Dr. Silber’s tenure as president, a simple fact whose truth is reinforced every time I use FitRec, built on the site of the former Commonwealth Armory.
He was frailer physically each time I saw him, and emanated none of the combativeness I experienced in professional meetings two decades ago. In the end he was just a man. A controversial, polarizing, profoundly influential, consequential, memorable man. I’ve heard that he died with dignity, his intellect undiminished, in control until the end. I would expect nothing less.