Transformation in Higher Ed: John Silber, Philosopher President

The greatest transformation in higher education over the last fifty years has been the move toward censoring and silencing voices.  I discuss some of the factors involved in these changes in my new biography, "Snapshots of My Father, John Silber".  As the president and chancellor of Boston University from 1971 to 2003, my father as conspicuous in his forceful protection of the academic freedom and constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech, of the students, faculty, and staff.

Many college presidents caved in when student groups threatened disruption or violence, but John Silber refused to pander to them.  He expected all students to make their voices heard, but also to listen to the other side.  By writing, speaking, and actually debating issues, both sides might learn something. 

Shouting down the other side is anti-intellectual; it resorts to the lowest form of brutalism:  Might makes right. If the protests devolve to violence, the only thing that can be learned is that violence is bad; violence is destructive.  It doesn’t prove one side right and the other side wrong or come to any kind of consensus.  When antagonists engage in actual debate and try to convince the opposition by listening to their arguments and responding point by point, they learn to articulate their beliefs, sometimes convincing their opponents and sometimes discovering weaknesses in their own thinking.

At the University of Texas in 1957, my dad put his job on the line to support Barbara Smith, a Black student who had been cast as the lead in the School of Music’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.   When legislators objected, only because she was Black, and when there was a threat of violence from anonymous callers, university officials gave in to these pressures.   My father did not get his way, and the production went ahead without Barbara Smith, but John Silber had publicly and eloquently shamed those in power at the time.

John Silber had an idea of activism as an activity that was respectful of the constitution and not destructive.  When he was in college he spent two summers as a census worker.  He sometimes found people living under conditions that were not humane.  When he later became a professor, one of his big assignments each year was called “The Slum Project.”  My dad sent the students out to find an area that was run down with urban blight and then to look into the background of that piece of property.  They were to interview the tenants.  Find out who the owner was.  Was it an absentee landlord?  Were the landlords fulfilling their legal obligations to their tenants?  This was serious work for undergraduate kids, but they seemed to like it and were proud of what they were able to discover.

My dad was a classical liberal all his life, but he often found, especially on college campuses, that there was a litany of left-wing beliefs that one was expected to hold in order to be considered a liberal.  To quote my dad, “Whenever one uses a set of beliefs as a liberal litmus test, one has confused liberalism with dogmatism.”  And he continued, “the ideologue of the left is no more liberal than the ideologue of the right, for neither believes in humility before the facts and logic, respect for the experience and views of others, and the importance of making a supreme effort to avoid irrationality.”  John Silber questioned those who claim to be liberal despite their illiberal thinking, as he denigrated ideologues of any stripe that refuse to put their beliefs to the test of dialogue and argument.

Protecting freedom of speech from those who tried to disrupt and prevent it at Boston University was often challenging during his thirty year tenure.  He was sometimes called a fascist when he stopped protesting students and faculty who were disrupting events on campus.  He was protecting the constitutional rights, the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly of those who were trying to participate in speaking events.  Despite the name-calling he sustained, the only sense in which my dad conceded that he was conservative was “in the sense that we conserve a methodology begun by Socrates and essential to all scientific thought.” 

For my dad, being a liberal was related to being a philosopher.  The method of questioning what is right and true as a liberal is similar to Socratic dialectic and to the scientific method.  It is a search for the best possible answer with the available information.  As he saw it, a liberal looks at all sides of an issue and listens to all voices, considering all points of view.  That is why freedom of speech is so fundamental and so vital. As a liberal, your point of view is never fixed in stone because you are always ready to hear from a new perspective.  As a true liberal, John Silber shunned dogma and upheld the great tradition of enlightened thinking.

Rachel Silber Devlin is the daughter of John Silber, the former President and Chancellor of Boston University who transformed the institution from a commuter school to a renowned institution of learning and research. He was also a controversial, yet intellectually formidable, candidate for governor of Massachusetts and  was chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education serving on the original commission that created Head Start. Rachel Silber Devlin is a wife, mother, teacher and author of “Snapshots of My Father, John Silber.”