When John Silber’s gay son died of AIDS in 1996 while I was editor of this publication, I had several people ask me whether I was going to go after arch-homophobe Silber in an editorial now that one of his only two sons had died of the disease most often associated with the gay men he hated so much.
I chose to stay silent primarily because I didn’t know much about Mrs. Silber, and it seemed poor form to kick a father, even one like John Silber, when one of his kids had just died.
Sixteen years later, Mrs. Silber is gone after dying in 2005. And now that John Silber has died — on Sept. 25 of kidney failure at age 86 — let me state unequivocally in the face of much post-mortem whitewashing of Silber and his record that has taken place in the mainstream press: he was the nastiest, most unrelentingly unempathetic man I’ve ever run across. You meet a lot of horrid people in this line of work, many of which are unhappy to hear from a reporter or editor of any publication. To this day he is the meanest asshole with whom I’ve ever dealt.
To be clear: I have spoken to two people who had enough exposure to Silber and his son, David, to be able to say anything even marginally informed about their relationship. Father and son apparently had a relationship that was complex and, at times, difficult. But the same can be said of many fathers and sons, and I never learned anything about Silber that gave me suspicions or proof that he was cruel in-person toward his gay son before or after he developed full-blown AIDS.
Did David suffer in silence? Did he ever call out his father for uttering in public things so ridiculous we usually associate them with undereducated religious fundamentalists?
Unless one of David’s remaining siblings decides to inform us, we may never know the answers to those questions. But this must be asked: What kind of demented person has a gay son at home, but then uses his considerable public pulpit to say the most vile things about homosexuality as his gay son lay dying at home? Again, this was not some crazy high school-educated right-wing preacher; it was the president of a major American university.
But we don’t need a smoking gun in the form of familial revelations to ascertain the kind of person that was John Silber. We need only look at his controversial tenure as president and then chancellor at Boston University to see what kind of man he was. It’s not pretty.
Of course, the media have made much of the tremendous growth the university experienced under John Silber, while ignoring two important caveats: first, most major universities experienced major growth from 1971 until 2003, Silber’s tenure, because of aggressive expansion and the baby boomers heading off to college during much of that time, coupled with growth of university endowments from the American economic bubble toward the end of Silber’s time at BU. Second, BU still stands far from anywhere near the top of university rankings, despite Silber’s iron-fisted rule, ostensibly in pursuit of academic excellence.
We will never know how much farther BU might have gone without Silber’s abrasive meddling in every corner of academic affairs normally left to appropriate faculty at a major university — the faculty voted twice to oust him — but this much is clear: if we look solely at academic rankings, it is apparent that he did not do BU any favors if you look at success as being more than fundraising, campus expansion and increasing enrollment.
And speaking of wealth, what about those areas where Silber was able to exert absolute control, such as where the university invested its endowment? Very often, contrary to the Silber hagiography being written post-mortem, if John Silber touched it, it turned to shit.
For example, in 1989 Silber (who had no background in finance or economics) managed to intimidate the university’s financial team into investing huge sums — eventually at least $107 million — into Seragen, an unproved biotech company that Silber had decided was the answer to his quixotic dream of one day approximating the huge endowments of those better known universities across the river who dared thumb their noses at his safety school brilliance. He even managed to convince some BU trustees, faculty (and friends of his with sick children) that Seragen was the biotech investment that could not lose.
When it was done, BU — and many of his friends — would have lost untold hundreds of millions. However, if BU had put its initial investment of $50 million (one fifth of its endowment at the time) into a standard S&P portfolio, it would have had $175 million in 1998 when the entire Seragen debacle was being analyzed.
The kicker? John Silber, paragon of WASP rectitude and beacon of all that makes men moral and worthy in his eyes, appears to have benefitted financially from the Seragen disaster, along with some of his cronies, even as those lesser people he convinced to invest lost it all.
He was an awful man who cloaked his being a terrible bully and emotional sadist behind just another worthless call to religious morality and managerial excellence.