Hard-Charging Former Arts and Sciences Dean John Silber Dies

 

One of the nation’s foremost university presidents—a native Texan who first made a name for himself at The University of Texas at Austin—died Thursday. John Silber was 86.

After epic clashes with Frank Erwin, the powerful chairman of the Board of Regents, Silber was famously fired from his position as dean of UT’s then-College of Arts and Sciences.

He went on to become president of Boston University, ruling the private Massachusetts school with fierce control and the ability to withstand tough media coverage and controversy for the next quarter-century. UT president Bill Powers called him an “enormously influential figure in American higher education.”

Remembering his approach, the New York Times described Silber as a “philosopher by training but a fighter by instinct,” an administrator displaying a “tigerish ferocity.”

Many said that fighting instinct was developed on the playground. Silber was born with his right arm ending in a stump below the elbow.

“I wasn’t really a hothead,” he told The Alcalde long after, “but if anybody thinks you’re going to have a peaceful life with one arm when you go to elementary school, they just don’t understand the situation. You’re teased, and you take the teasing or do something to stop it. I did my best to stop it.”

After his childhood in San Antonio, Silber earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity University. He later attended a semester of law school at UT but left to pursue a PhD in philosophy at Yale University instead.

Recruited to teach back at UT by Harry Ransom, he returned to the Forty Acres as an assistant philosophy professor in 1957, working his way to department chairman by 1962 and dean by 1967.

He proved a combative college leader, replacing up to 22 of 28 department heads within three years and rarely, if ever, backing down from conflicts with Erwin, the president of the University, or anyone else.

One stand he took was against the removal of black female singer Barbara Smith Conrad from the lead of UT’s 1957 opera production of Dido and Aeneas, in which she was cast opposite a white male lead. (Silber held a mixed bag of views over the years, opposing segregation and capital punishment but railing against communism, political correctness, and promiscuity.)

Silber’s final stand at Texas was against the regents’ plan to split the massive College of Arts and Sciences, which educated 60 percent of UT students, into two. The chairman summarily fired him in 1971, and the college was indeed split.

Decades after leaving UT, Silber remained a lightning rod. In 2007, an Alcalde cover story on the man who had left UT 36 years before generated one of the biggest responses in the magazine’s history.

Erwin had passed away in 1980, so Silber got the last word on their battle, and he took it in dramatic fashion. “I want the people of Texas to know,” he said, “that I never would have left Texas if Frank Erwin hadn’t fired me.”

Photo by Avrel Seale

 

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