UT Dean John Silber is Fired
Looking like the announcement of a national calamity, this headline appeared in oversized font on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman on July 25, 1970. Just forty-four-years-old, Silber had served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin for less than three years. The reasons behind the action could provide material for an engaging study of politics in higher education. With approximately 15,000 students, the college was bigger than some universities. Silber, a popular and powerful figure on campus, had begun to speak out against the college’s increasing enrollment and decreasing budget allocation. Most importantly, he opposed a plan to divide the college into three parts under three separate deans.
For months to come, the sudden firing sparked some of his loyal colleagues to seek employment at other institutions. Later that month, Silber would speak with the press to encourage them not to quit. The controversy lingered on until mid-December when press reports noted that Boston University had identified Silber as a candidate for president. The formal announcement of his appointment came on December 17, 1970.
Six months after being stepped down and one month after being named president at Boston, Silber spoke in Cincinnati on January 12, 1971, at the general session of the twenty-seventh annual meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans. His sprawling speech, entitled “The Dean as Educator: His Doing and Undoing,” totaled just over 6,400 words. In it, he notes that he was “invited just after my dismissal,” meaning July or August of the previous year. Although fresh in his memory, when he alluded to his own “undoing” his tone was, in general, light-hearted. He wrote: “A dean who has personally experienced administrative pathology may have something useful to say about healthy administration.”
Silber does not recount details of the events from the previous July. It is clear that he wore the firing as a badge of honor. Toward the middle of his remarks he said, “Just as longevity in an office is not evidence of success, so brevity in office is no mark of failure. In some cases it may be the price of success.” Fiercely unapologetic—as he was his entire life—Silber was proud of the work he had accomplished in his three years as dean. He observed that a “dean who aspires to greatness…must be prepared to risk brief tenure in office as the possible price of innovation…”
Rather than focusing on his academic career to date, Silber’s address is a probing meditation on the responsibilities of academic leaders during the Vietnam War and in a time of massive social unrest—including the riots at Columbia University in 1968 and the shootings at Kent State in 1970. Of those turbulent years Silber said, “It is a time of profound crisis, and a period in which simple answers are patently false and sound answers difficult to come by.” Much of the text concentrates on the transformative power of education to shape informed citizens—an education guided by deans who “convey something of the magic and confusion of youth, the fragility of the academic life, the excitement of a community ruled by persuasion rather than by force.”
Silber’s writing is notable for both probing depth and earthy humor. Alluding to an incident during the Columbia University protests two years prior to his speech he quipped, “The average student is no less a humbug than the average dean or the average faculty member…If he insists on urinating in the president’s desk, he will have to learn that this is not the high water mark of civilization.” The actual receptacle used in the Columbia protest was a waste basket—in reality, a low water mark. As a vehicle for his wry humor, Silber’s poetic freedom with the furniture is forgivable. It is evident, however, that the widespread student protests of the era were of grave concern for him. He warned, “…if students are more serious than in years past, their irrationality is more seriously dangerous.
On that morning in January 1971 when he delivered his speech, Silber was nearing his mid-forties. Just a few months later, on May 23, 1971, he was inaugurated president of Boston University. A dean for three years, he would be a president for three decades. And yet several times in Boston he faced his “undoing” as leader of the institution. On November 28, 1979, Nicholas D. Kristoff published an article in The Harvard Crimson entitled “John R. Silber: War and Peace at Boston University” that detailed the second campaign to force Silber out of office. The effort did not succeed, due in large part to Silber’s fierce dedication and force of will. Thirty years later, in its obituary published on September 27, 2012, the New York Times called him “A philosopher by training but a fighter by instinct, Dr. Silber believed in old-fashioned hard work and academic excellence.”
A year before his run for Governor of Massachusetts in 1990, Silber published a book entitled Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It (Harper and Row, 1989). A collection of speeches and essays from earlier in his career, the book received positive reviews. For example, David B. Wilson wrote in The Boston Globe on August 31, 1989, “This extraordinary man’s mind leaps from the commonplace to the esoteric, from litigation over peanut butter…to a graceful distillation of Kant’s categorical imperative…” Other reviewers focused on sections of the book that explored abortion and homosexuality, topics that inspired protests at some of his public events. Including “The Dean as Educator” in the 1989 collection (pp. 118-136) is an indication of his pride in the speech, although some parts were revised for a different format, time, and audience.
In a plainspoken style that has long since vanished, Silber’s words eloquently proclaim an unwavering commitment to the transformative power of education. To paraphrase the last sentence of his address, John R. Silber’s legacy persists and endures and enlarges human life.