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SILBER, JOHN ROBERT

John Robert Silber (1926–2012).
Texas native John Silber served as president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

SILBER, JOHN ROBERT (1926–2012). John Robert Silber, academician, was born to German immigrant Paul George Silber, Sr., and Jewell ZeMary (Joslin) Silber in San Antonio, Texas, on August 15, 1926. He was born with a congenital birth defect that hindered the growth of his right arm. This physical challenge influenced his early development and instilled a strong will that later helped him excel in his professional endeavors. Silber grew up in a very religious Presbyterian family but later discovered that his father concealed their Jewish ancestry and the fact that several family members had died in the Holocaust during World War II. Silber attended Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, where he participated in National Honor Society, ROTC, student government, and the school band. Silber aspired to be a musician and an artist, but he went on to distinguish himself in the academic world.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Silber enrolled at Trinity University in San Antonio where he met his wife, Kathryn Underwood. He briefly attended the Northwestern University School of Music in 1944 but decided to return to San Antonio to complete his studies at Trinity. Silber was involved in a number of organizations, including the legislative assembly, a philosophy club called The Symposium, the debate club, and the student council. He was the president of the forensics honor society Pi Kappa Delta, a charter member of the Triniteers fraternity, and was also president of his sophomore class. In addition to studying philosophy, music, and German, Silber studied the arts under Pompeo Coppini and Waldine Tauch, and received a Coppini Gold Medal for oil painting. After graduating summa cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and fine arts in 1947, Silber went to Yale Divinity School for a year, then completed a semester at the University of Texas School of Law. He worked as a census enumerator in San Antonio and Austin in the summers of 1948 and 1949. 

Silber returned to Yale University in 1949 to further his studies in philosophy, and in 1952 and 1956 he was awarded a master’s degree and a Ph.D., respectively. He primarily studied the philosophy of law, education, and ethical theory, and he identified strongly with Immanuel Kant’s writings and ultimately earned a reputation as an authority on Kantian ethics. At Yale, Silber served as a reader, teaching assistant, and graduate instructor in the philosophy department. He also worked part-time as a choirmaster at Foxon Congregational Church and Hull Memorial Baptist Church. 

In 1955 Silber obtained a position as assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He was promoted to associate professor in 1961 and professor in 1962, the same year that he was appointed chair of the department of philosophy. He also served briefly as head of the newly-formed comparative studies program in 1967. In 1959 Silber traveled to Germany to teach at the University of Bonn for one year on a Fulbright grant. In 1962 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for study at King’s College London, and in 1963 he was awarded a grant by the American Council of Learned Societies. 

While in Texas, Silber was influential in founding Operation Head Start and was chairman of the Texas Society to Abolish Capital Punishment, president of the Southwestern Philosophical Society, and a board member of the National Humanities Faculty. He also earned a number of distinguished teaching awards, including the Morris L. Ernst Award (1964) and the Danforth Foundation’s E. Harris Harbison Award (1966). He was outspoken about his social views in  support of civil rights as well as integration at the University of Texas (UT). In 1967 Silber was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UT. Silber fired many department chairs during his time as dean, but he was popular at the university. Frank Erwin, chair of the board of regents, and others among the university’s administration wanted to split the College of Arts and Sciences and reorganize it into separate colleges, which Silber fiercely opposed. This clash with Erwin ultimately led to Silber’s removal as dean on July 24, 1970. Silber stayed on to teach at UT as University Professor of Arts and Letters but resigned the following year to fill the vacant presidency of Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Silber spent more than thirty years at Boston University and served as its seventh president from 1971 to 1996 and as chancellor from 1996 to 2003. He also taught as a professor of philosophy, international relations, and law. His time as president at Boston University was one of tremendous growth and transformation for the university. Under his leadership, the school’s endowments, research funding, and investments in new construction increased dramatically. Total enrollment also steadily increased while admissions standards were tightened. Silber also endeavored to raise academic standards by attracting internationally-renowned scholars, Nobel Laureates, and MacArthur Fellows to the newly-created University Professors Program. Other innovative programs that began during his tenure included the Boston Scholars Program, the Prison Education Program, the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership, and Boston University Academy. Although Silber led the University’s growth to new heights, he was an outspoken, frank, and controversial leader who often clashed with faculty members and students, who frequently protested and called for his resignation. Despite this, Silber received an honorary degree from Boston University in 1995, and a major thoroughfare running through campus was renamed John R. Silber Way in 2008. 

Silber wrote several books, including Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It (1989); Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art (2007); Kant’s Ethics: The Good, Freedom, and the Will (2012); and Seeking the North Star: Selected Speeches (2013, published posthumously). He was an editor of the philosophy journal Kant-Studien as well as the author of many scholarly articles and critiques on various subjects, such as philosophy and education, in journals such as the Philosophical Quarterly and the Philosophical Review

While at Boston University, Silber also served as a trustee of the College of St. Scholastica, the University of Denver, Adelphi University, and the WGBH Educational Foundation. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and served on the board of directors of numerous organizations, including the National Humanities Institute, the United States Strategic Institute, and Americans for Medical Progress. Silber served on three commissions under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, including the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, the Advisory Board for Radio Broadcasting to Cuba, and the Defense Policy Board. He also made an unsuccessful run for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 as the Democratic candidate but lost to Republican William Weld, who later appointed Silber chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education from 1996 to 1999. In recognition of his efforts on behalf of early childhood education, the state of Massachusetts later established the John Silber Early Literacy Program. The Chelsea, Massachusetts, public school system also named the John R. Silber Early Learning Center in his honor. After his retirement in 2003, Silber remained at Boston University as president emeritus. 

Silber died as a result of kidney failure on September 27, 2012, at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Boston Globe, December 12, 2013. New York Times, November 5, 1995; September 27, 2012. Bostonia: The Boston University Alumni Magazine, Winter–Spring 2013.

Megan Stanford

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Handbook of Texas Online, Megan Stanford, "Silber, John Robert ," accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsilb.

Uploaded on November 18, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.