Full Disclosure #1: The hardworking staff currently teaches at Boston University and does not have tenure.
Full Disclosure #2: The hardworking staff has fond memories of former BU czar John Silber.
Back in the day, we regularly collided with Dr. Silber on WCVB’s Five on Five (which, lamentably, seems to have fallen off the digital grid), where we routinely accused him of promoting, say, social engineering only to see him go from zero-to-high-dudgeon in roughly six seconds.
It was great fun.
In subsequent years, Dr. Silber was unfailingly gracious whenever we encountered him, which doesn’t mean squat to the many BU faculty he Terrier-ized during his reign, but that’s another post entirely.
This post is about his posthumous publication, Seeking the North Star, which New Criterion editor Roger Kimball reviewed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.
In his tonic foreword to “Seeking the North Star,” a wide-ranging selection of Silber’s speeches, Tom Wolfe notes that, at BU, Silber transformed “a moribund streetcar college into a major teaching and research institution,” building its endowment to some $430 million from $18 million. He stocked the faculty with world-class talent, including Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel, Derek Walcott, Saul Bellow and the physicist Sheldon Glashow. Unambiguous grounds for celebration, you might think, but that would be to neglect politically correct mediocrities such as historian Howard Zinn, who was for decades a fixture at BU and with whom Silber often clashed.
Silber was often labeled “conservative.” In fact, and as he always insisted, he was a liberal of the old school. He believed in advancement according to merit, not quotas; colorblind justice; the disinterested pursuit of truth; and open debate, not ideological conformity. This commitment to what we might call classical liberalism—the liberalism of an Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill —forms an important leitmotif of “Seeking the North Star.” It also explains why Silber was from the beginning on a collision course with the faux-liberalism, the illiberal liberalism, of contemporary academic culture. “No institution,” he writes sadly, “has contributed so extensively to the deracination and diminishment of our humanity as university faculties.”
Your rebuttal goes here.
Silber versus Zinn? Behold the dead!
Wait, what? Advancement according to merit? Colorblind justice? These are core conservative values (one might say “fantasies”), not liberal at all. What a crock. FWIW, I attended BU from 1994-98 and there was nobody on campus more interested in what was going on in students’ bedrooms than Silber. That man had an absolute fetish for control when it came both to students’ overall personal life and especially their sexual life…yet another conservative value.
John Silber was a nasty SOB who alienated pretty much everyone who encountered him and ran BU with a reign of fear and intimidation. Whatever intellectual qualities he displayed were more than offset by his paranoia and social dysfunction. Waves of BU alums refused to give money as long as he ran his kingdom. An awful person, by any measure, undeserving of posthumous praise….
I remember Silber debating radio host Avi Nelson on TV a long time ago. When Nelson complained about affirmative action, Silber (in so many words) accused the opponents of affirmative action of being scared of the completion once they lost their privileged positions.
When Nelson complained that academia was full of liberals, Silber retorted that if the people who knew the most about a subject were the most liberal, it probably meant that liberalism was correct. (Again that’s a rough paraphrase.)
I’m still not sure if Silber changed his principles over the years, or whether he just found a new set of adversaries.
How was it, John, to be on the receiving end Silber’s high-dudgeon?
I didn’t like Silber’s positions on any number of issues, but I enjoyed having him part of the discourse. He always made one think.
It was like a game of chicken, Mudge, with Silber driving an 18-wheeler and me driving a 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite (I actually owned one when I moved to Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square in 1974; it was stolen in three days).
The classic battles I remember were Silber vs. Chomsky on WGBH, I think in the 70s (see “Manufacturing Consent”) and of course the classic one with Natalie Jacobsen on WCVB during the 1990 election.
The ideological dead-man-walking in this is the WSJ.