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Remembering John Silber, an outsized personality in Boston academia

September 28, 2012

Former Boston University president John R. Silber, who died yesterday at age 86, will mostly be remembered for making BU a significantly more dynamic and better unversity than when he arrived in the early 1970s. But he also made BU a great place to be a student journalist.

Silber was a newsmaker — brash, unapologetic, scary smart, and controversial.

President Reagan appointed him in the 1980s to serve on a panel about Central America. Silber, as the saying went, didn’t suffer fools gladly. To his credit, he regularly made himself available to student reporters from the student-run Daily Free Press, the third-largest daily in Boston.

He attracted star professors like Kevin White, who served as the Hub’s mayor from 1968-82, and brought in such guest speakers as Eugene McCarthy, J. Anthony Lukas, Alan Lupo, and George Regan. Silber seemed to have little love for liberal professors like Howard Zinn and Murray Levin. 

Working at the Free Press during Silber’s lengthy reign was a formative experience for a lot of journalists who went on to bigger things, like Don Van Natta Jr., Larry Hackett, Joe Hallinan, Ian Fisher, Eric Fehrnstrom (now a top adviser to Mitt Romney), among others.

Being a part of covering Silber in the early-mid ’80s — during the heyday of the Boston Globe and when Dave O’Brian was offering sharply observed media criticism for the Phoenix — made a lasting impression on me.

In 1990, Silber ran for governor of Massachusetts. His impolitic candor led to a cascade of statements known as “Silber shockers.” (The public radio personality Christopher Lydon called Silber the political equivalent of the hard-hitting rap band Public Enemy.) The caustic academic, it seemed, was destined to remain at BU.

They don’t make many like John Silber.

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