Academic leadership, volcanoes, and John Silber (1926-2012)

When I think about strong academic leaders, I always have John Silber at the top of my list.   He was president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, chancellor from 1996 to 2003, and president emeritus from 2003 until he passed away yesterday.  The stories about his wit, intellect, and temper are legendary, and many of these have been repeated as colleagues, friends, and foes reflect on the impact he had on BU, the University of Texas before that, the Boston area, Massachusetts, and higher education.

I knew him as “Uncle John,” rather than “Dr. Silber.”  He and his wife Kathryn shared a kitchen and bathroom in Yale graduate student housing with my parents in the early 1950s, before I was born.  I have, literally, known him my whole life.  (He used to joke that I was the only university president whose diapers he had once changed.)  And from as early as I can remember, I appreciated his humor, his wide-ranging knowledge, and his interest in engaging in debate, even with little kids.  The Silbers had seven children — the oldest, and only son, was my age — and when my two sisters and I were added in the mix, putting our families together was always interesting.  Kathryn Silber had the talents that most parents in large families have — of being able to focus on the person in front of her who needs immediate attention and being able to filter out a lot of distractions.

I know that my attitude about Uncle John was strongly influenced by the love and admiration my parents had for him.  They were the best of friends for nearly 60 years.  John persuaded my father to come work at Boston University when Dad retired from government service at age 50;  his first job was to develop a new Program in Artisanry.  After that project was up and running, Dad became responsible for BU’s budget and space allocation, working directly with John.

John was notorious for his brusque and sometime abrasive treatment of the people around him.  My father knew what he was getting into, working as an administrator at BU, but he also knew his own limits.  One day, after about three years at BU, Dad said, “I can either keep the friendship or the job.  I choose friendship.  John, I quit.”  They remained close friends.  I value that perspective:  when it comes to a choice like that, take the friendship.

One of John’s comments about faculty tenure has always stayed with me, too.  In an interview, he once compared faculty to volcanoes.  (Of course this would appeal to a geologist like me!)  He observed that making a tenure decision was like predicting a volcano’s activity.  Faculty who are considered for tenure must have been productive before they apply — John compared them with an erupting volcano.  There can be no question about the importance of such activity for tenure decisions.  The real question is whether the faculty member will become ” a burned out cinder cone” or continue to be a productive scholar (a.k.a, keep erupting) for the rest of his or her career.  The metaphor is both visual and appropriate.  And I think many people would agree that a volcanic image worked for John, too.

When I was inaugurated as president of Southern Polytechnic State University in 1999, John attended as the delegate representing Boston University.  He marched in the appropriate place in the academic procession (BU was founded in 1839), and he tried to keep a low profile.  This was a little difficult with the number of academics who attended.  At the luncheon prior to the inauguration ceremony, he was sitting with my parents and the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia.  The then-chancellor of the University System of Georgia came up to me — and asked to be introduced to Dr. Silber.  I don’t think I had ever seen that chancellor appear intimidated before — and I never did again.

In 2009, my husband Dallas and I were traveling in New England, and we made arrangements to meet John for dinner in Boston.  This is how our planning conversation went:

Me:  Dallas and I are going to be in Boston on Monday, August 10, and we’d like to invite you to be our guest for dinner.

JS:  Let me check the calendar.  I think I’m here.  If I’m at the lake, it’s only a two-hour drive, and I’ll just come back….Looks good.  What time?

Me:  Dallas and I are still figuring out the details, so I’ll have to get back to you with an exact time and place.  Do you have a preference?

JS:  Earlier is better than later.  But you’re going to be on my turf, and I’m not comfortable being your guest.  You need to be my guests.  I’ll make the reservations.

Me:  That wasn’t my intention.

JS:  I don’t care what your intention was.  In fact, I can’t tell you how insignificant your wishes are in this situation. 

I laughed so hard I couldn’t talk.

We did meet for dinner, joined by one of his daughters, and the evening was wonderful.  This was the exchange with our server at the end of the meal:

Server (after showing us the dessert tray):  What looks good to you?

JS:  Do you have chocolate ice cream?

Server:  We have vanilla and cinnamon ice cream.

 JS:  So you don’t have chocolate?

Server:  We have vanilla and cinnamon ice cream.  [Pause.]  You’re the president of a major university.  You can figure this out.

JS:  Can you pour some chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream?

Server:  I think we can do that.

I admired John’s commitment to education, his focus on logic and reason, and the honesty with which he always expressed his opinion.  If good leaders are always clear about their rationale and intent — on being able to articulate not only what they want to have happen, but also why — then John Silber was a truly great leader.  I’ll miss him.

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