The Lion in Winter: Full Transcript
This is the full transcript of Boston magazine contributor John Sedgwick's interview with Boston University Chancellor Emeritus John Silber:
The Goldin Debacle
Let's start by taking you back to back to fall 2003, when NASA
administrator Daniel Goldin was paid $1.8 million to walk away from the
job of being your successor. There are many ways to look at that
incident. But I wonder—did you have trouble letting go?
JOHN SILBER: No, I didn't have trouble letting go.
I had let go in 1996, when the board elected Jon Westling as president.
The board elected Jon Westling with instructions that they wanted
continuity in the direction in which the university was going. And Jon
Westling, I think, did a very good job. I regret his dismissal — I
don't know that it's a dismissal, or his resignation — because I think
that any and all of the complaints I heard about him came under the
heading of the trivial. He made some snappy reply to one trustee, and
he failed to return telephone calls to a couple of other trustees, and
some trustees thought he was a little late in selecting or coming up
with proposals for commencement speakers. But those are matters that
can be so easily corrected. But some of them also felt that Jon did not
enjoy being president, and that since we were going to go into a
capital campaign, we didn't know, and maybe perhaps Jon didn't know,
whether he was prepared to provide the leadership and hard work that a
10-year or, say, a five-year capital campaign would require. But in any
event, the idea that I was reluctant to let go had been more than aptly
refuted by the fact that I let go.
Q: Right, but then continued on as chancellor.
Westling, of course, was your provost. There was a kind of natural
succession there, and by some accounts you had a heavy hand in
A: Well, I think the board had a heavy hand in
selecting him, because they saw what a brilliant job he had done as my
successor. Remember, he had served as acting president on two
occasions: One when I ran for president—I mean, not president . . .
A: One when I ran for governor, in 1990, and
another time when I took a sabbatical. And both times, they appointed
him as president, and the university functioned beautifully. Anybody
who knows Jon Westling knows that he has one of the most outstanding,
remarkable minds that you're ever going to meet — a comprehensive
knowledge, a range and depth of knowledge, that you find in almost no
one, except in very rare cases.
Q: But you returned as acting president when
Westling resigned. Then you served on the search committee and wielded
heavy influence on the board while it looked for your successor.
A: I don't think that's unusual at all. There are a
lot of people who do. You think that Jack Welch, for example, didn't
have any hand in who was his successor?
Q: But General Electric is a corporation.
A: Well, Boston University is a corporation,
whether you like it or not. You see, I think that a person who's
devoted his, say, 25 years to an institution and is indifferent to
who's the successor must be mad. Of course you have some interest in
it. Now, if the trustees hadn't wanted me on that committee, I wouldn't
have been on that committee. But that committee voted for Goldin, and
let's make it clear: [Then-president] Charles Vest of MIT was one of
the strongest endorsers of Goldin. Goldin's name surfaced from Sam
Ting, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, also from MIT. [Ting says he
doesn't remember recommending Goldin; Vest says he “provided what I
believed to be a balanced assessment of Dan Goldin for members of the
BU search committee and others who called to ask my opinion of him as a
candidate.”] So it's not as if Goldin didn't have outstanding letters
of recommendation and comments from individuals.
And there were some people who were critical of him, and some who
were very enthusiastic about him. And many who were asked, “What do you
do with the criticism?” had as their response, “Well, you know, a
person like Goldin, who shakes things up, is bound to generate some
criticism — that sort of goes with the territory.” But it's not that
there wasn't enough due diligence.
Q: And what about the King Lear
aspects of this? This is an institution you built virtually from
scratch. As you said, it would have been a strange person to just sit
back and let that pass freely from his hands, but I wonder whether you
identify with Lear.
A: Why would I? Lear divested himself of his kingdom and wanted no influence on anything.
Q: And regretted it.
A: Yeah, but that's not my position. I did serve
on the search committee. I did participate in the meetings of the board
of trustees in which we discussed Goldin. And I certainly took part in
that decision. So, far from being like Lear, I was involved. But I was
not the one who decided Boston University should elect Goldin. I was one of those
who did. And I will grant you this: Perhaps the relationship I've had
with trustees for over 30 years is such that perhaps my opinion carried
more weight than just a vote of one. Maybe it was, say, one and
three-fifths, or worth two votes, or maybe three votes. I'll grant you
that. But certainly nothing like Lear.
Q: But it's also true of Lear that he didn't know
who to trust in the end, and placed his faith in the wrong people. Was
that your case with Goldin?
A: I made a mistake in the assessment of Goldin,
certainly. Everybody did. And I believe Charles Vest did, and I know
damned well Sam Ting did. And Sam Ting wrote me afterward to sort of
apology for not mentioning some of the downside. [Ting says he never
wrote a letter to Silber.] And I've had any number of calls afterward
from people who said, “I thought about writing you when I heard that
[Goldin] was in the running, but I just didn't get around to doing it,
or I didn't think about it.” There were all kinds of criticisms that
came out of the air once the decision to terminate that contract was
Q: What was the moment like for you when the offer to Goldin had to be rescinded and the payout had to be made?
A: Don't exaggerate the payout. He had planned a
coronation that would have cost a great deal more than $1.8 million. In
the context of a budget of $1.6 billion, $1.8 million is not that
significant. And just think what the university saved by the
termination, because if it had allowed that contract to go forward,
Goldin would have had a payout of, say, 10 times that amount , if
they'd decided later to get rid of him.
Q: But the publicity fallout?
A: The fallout wasn't terrible at all. That has been manufactured by the press.
Q: But that's where the fallout always registers.
A: We didn't lose our alumni support; we didn't
lose our grants and contracts brought in by the faculty. I can show you
the steady progression of those. We did not lose in terms of
applications from students. Instead, they continued to rise
consistently each year, moving up to 31,000 this year. They were 16,000
when I came, back in 1971. The idea that there was a crisis here was a
pure manufacture. There was no crisis; there was a blip. Here, you hit
a rock, things are unfortunate, there's a little bit of bad publicity,
the story is worth about one or two days in the press, but there were
people in the university who tried to blow it all out of sight and say,
“Oh, my God, we've lost confidence.” There was no crisis among the
student body. They came, they paid their bills, the alumni continued to
give, the grants and contracts continued to come in.
You see, the Globe said there was a crisis. Other people
in the press said there was a crisis. But I'd just like to know, where
is the crisis? If there had been a crisis, there should have been a
sudden fall-off in applications. There should have been a sudden
defection by the faculty. None of the faculty left. All the Nobel Prize
winners were still here. All of the outstanding faculty were here.
Q: They're under contract.
A: They're not under contract. Any contract at a
university is binding on the university and it is never binding on the
Q: So [BU professor] Derek Walcott could walk in the morning?
A: Derek Walcott could walk in the morning. Any
professor at Boston University could walk in the morning. You cannot
enforce a personal service contract. It's as simple as that. On the
other hand, if Boston University decided to fire a tenured professor, that
we couldn't do, because they could take legal action against us. We
couldn't do it unless we could show that there was malfeasance on their
part, or incompetence on their part, or something of that sort. But
tenure contracts are always, always one-sided contracts.
They protect the professor, but they don't protect the university from
his departure. So the fact that no professors left is a clear
indication that there was no great defection among the faculty.
“Who said anything about Harvard?”
Q: What had the university become by the end of your run? Was it, as you like to say, the third great university on the Charles?
A: Well, I think the idea that it's anything less
than a world-class university shows just the kind of prejudice that
Boston University has suffered under since I first indicated to the Globe
editorial board, back in about 1971, that my ambition for the
university was to make it an institution of excellence, on the grounds
that I think a university that's not excellent is really not a
And I was asked by [then Globe editor] Tom Winship, “Why
would you want to imitate Harvard?” And I said, “Who said anything
about Harvard? I said I want Boston University to be a great university
in terms of both teaching and research.” And I said, “I don't think
Harvard has got a good undergraduate educational program. They leave
entirely too much teaching in the hands of teaching assistants. I think
Williams College, Amherst College, Haverford College, Bryn Mawr
College, Yale in directed studies — these are examples of really
first-rate undergraduate teaching. And if I were going to emulate
another institution, I would be looking for an emphasis on teaching
And I said, “If you think that I'm imitating Harvard because I want
excellent research programs and excellent faculty, that overlooks the
fact that that's a requirement of any great university. It has nothing
to do with Harvard.”
I got a call after that meeting from one of the reporters who was
there. And that reporter said to me, “You've ruined yourself with the Globe .”
And I said, “Why? I thought it went very well. You know, I thought it
was a very cordial meeting.” The reporter said, “No, it didn't go well
at all. Winship was simply appalled, and he said [then owners of the Globe ]
the Taylors will certainly be appalled. Not that you were critical of
Harvard, because they had their criticisms of Harvard, too, but that
Harvard doesn't even exist in your thinking about the subject. And when
you think about the university, you don't even think about Harvard.”
And I said, “Well, that's true, I really don't.” And he said, “Well,
that was a shock to them.” And you could tell that, from that time on.
Prior to that, the Globe had been very kind to me and very
favorable to me. They had published about two-thirds of my inaugural
address, and everything changed after that. And this has been a
constant drumbeat ever since.
Q: Just because you dissed Harvard — or ignored it, which is even worse.
A: Yeah, I ignored it. Not that I criticized it, just that they thought it was appalling that I ignored it.
Q: Calling BU the third great university on the Charles brings to mind the two others, doesn't it?
A: No, that doesn't follow. Just compare the research component at Boston
University with the research component at Northeastern and at Boston
College, and you'll find that they're not even remotely in the same
league. Here you have around $408.2 million a year of grants and
contract research at Boston University, which is a function of the
quality of the faculty that drives that research. It was at $15 million
when I came here, and approximately $2.3 million in overhead recovery.
Now overhead recovery amounts to — let me give you the exact number —
about $117.4 million. Now, go check the budget of Boston College and
see if they've got any numbers like that.
Q: So, in effect, it's a kind of profit center for you.
A: Well, you have a curl in your lip when you ask
that question. And that continues the kind of bias that Boston
University continually faces every time we deal with the press. And
that is, you want to make something nasty out of something that at any
other university you would regard as complimentary.
Q: But let me tell you why I say it. One of the
things that is noticeable about BU is that it has a relatively low
endowment. You've mentioned BC; it has half of BC's endowment.
A: No, it has more than half of BC's endowment. It's got about two-thirds of BC's endowment.
Q: Well . . .
A: But it's lower than BC. And one thing we don't
have is, we don't have the kind of corporate leadership in Boston for
Boston University that the Irish have at Boston College. There's no
question about that. BC has a great board and a great chairman. If we had Jack Connors as the chairman
of Boston University, it would be an entirely different thing. If we
had Tom Flatley on our board—when you have people like Connors and
Flatley on your board of trustees, there's where your fundraising
leadership comes from. Boston University has had a difficulty in
recruiting to our board of trustees the kind of individuals who can not
only give but get major gifts. On the other hand, we moved that
endowment from $18.8 million to something in excess of $700 million in
this period of time, so the vector is not so bad. It's just that the
total amount we started with was way, way too low.
Q: And what about the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which place BU 60th right now, whereas Tufts is 27th and Boston College 40th.
A: Well, just compare again the substantial things
about Boston University with Tufts. And you'll find out that Tufts is a
relatively small college compared to Boston University, in terms of the
research and quality of its faculty. But that's not the way it's
counted at U.S. News & World Report . Their rankings are based on utter ignorance. I have always hoped that there would be a lawsuit filed against U.S. News & World Report .
I wouldn't care whether we won or not. But in preparation for the
trial, we would depose all the college presidents and all the deans who
replied to their questionnaire. And we would ask them, “Now, tell me,
who's on the faculty in philosophy at Boston University? Who's on the
faculty at Tufts? Who's on the faculty at Boston College? Who's on the
faculty at Trinity University in San Antonio? Who's on the faculty at
Northeastern? And they would expose themselves as absolute ignoramuses.
But despite an ignorance of the quality of the faculty at all these
universities, they're prepared to say, “This one is better than that
one”? “This one has got a reputation at” —
Q: Right, it's the tyranny of numbers.
A: And there are several other factors in U.S. News & World Report
that get in the way. They ask, “What is your acceptance rate?” But they
don't ask, “What is the quality of your application pool?” We have
31,000 applicants, and we could have admitted probably two-thirds of
that applicant pool without ever lowering our standards. Our SAT scores
have gone up every year. They're up to about a 1309 — I think that is
the standard this year. And many of the people who we've accepted, I
would say, at least one-half end up at Yale, Harvard, Brown, Amherst —
absolutely first-class places.
If you take some other school that's ahead of ours, such as Tufts or
George Washington University in Washington, D.C., they don't have that
quality of pool. And so they admit a smaller percentage of their pool,
and they have a higher percentage-of-acceptance rate. And then there's
another factor: Some of the colleges that file reports lie. And don't
overlook that fact. You have to evaluate a university in a different
way from those criteria used by U.S. News & World Report .
Q: Sadly, it has to be more subjective, I think.
It's hard to come up with quantitative measures that would, in fact,
reflect . . .
A: They come up with quantitative measures all the time. What is the percentage of acceptance? That's a quantitative measure.
Q: But that's what I mean. They're false, aren't they?
A: But our SAT scores are higher than many of the
schools that are ranked higher than we. But they don't even include
grants and contracts. Now, you see, what you dismiss simply as profit,
indirect recovery, is something that is given with those grants,
because they recognize that there are infrastructure costs associated
with research grants. And in providing those costs, they make it
possible for people to use the research grants that they offer. Now
that measure, it seems to me, is probably about as good a measure for
the quality of your faculty as you can find. But there's another one:
What is the ranking of the faculty in terms of citations of their
publications? Boston University scores very high in that. We have
scored equal to MIT and Caltech in science and mathematics and computer
science and engineering. And I think you might compare Boston College
and Northeastern in that regard, and see where they stand.
So Boston University has, as far as the press is concerned, been
given the shaft over and over again. It's like the way in which I've
been characterized, as some kind of social conservative. That was [ Globe
education writer Marcella] Bombardieri's latest pronouncement. This
comes from the laziness of reporters who don't bother to check what
they've seen in print, or whether it's accurate or not.
For example, when I ran for governor, [ Globe writer]
Curtis Wilkie continually said, “Silber has no sense of humor.” I would be
up in the hustings, and an audience would start to laugh at something
funny I had said. And I said, “What are you doing?” And they would look
puzzled. And I would say, “Are you laughing?” And they'd say yes. And
they'd start being confused again. And I said, “Well, stop it! Curtis
Wilkie is in this audience, and Wilkie writes every day that I have no
sense of humor. Now stop that!” And now they're laughing almost at a
hysterical level. And then, after they calmed down, I said, “Curtis,
what are you going to say tomorrow that I still have no sense of
humor?” Yep, that's exactly what he did. I've never had a sense of
Now, this social conservative business—where do they get that? First
of all, I can give you stuff that I've done. There's an article that I
wrote on capital punishment when I became the chairman of the Texas
Society to Abolish Capital Punishment.
Q: You're against it, I gather.
A: I was a founder of that organization. And in
1957, I was an untenured assistant professor at the University of Texas
when I intervened to challenge the chancellor of the university on the
removal of a black woman, Barbara Smith, from a taxpayer-supported
opera at the University of Texas. I came very close to being fired for
that. And I probably would have been fired, except at the next
opportunity to fire me, when that contract was to come up, I had five
articles published and had won a Fulbright, and it was more pressure
than the chancellor was prepared to take. But it came close.
And I helped with integration. I wrote an article on breaking the
cycle of poverty, and I sent it to [Texas] Senator [Ralph] Yarborough.
Yarborough passed it on to [Sargent] Shriver, and Shriver asked me to
come on the planning committee for Operation Head Start. Now, none of
those things are, I would say, particularly what you'd expect of a
social conservative, but they don't count around here.
Q: Perhaps it's because you've come across as
tough. And, I might add, seemingly unfeeling. I think that's what gives
you your reputation.
A: Well, you know, “seeming,” you can do anything
you want to with “seeming.” Why is it that the childhood literacy
program that was established by the legislature at $2 million is named
the John Silber Early Literacy Program? Because I'm so unfeeling? No,
it's because I was the guy who was pushing to get that money passed.
When [BU] took over [the public schools in] Chelsea, was that so
unfeeling? We were asked to do so by the mayor and by the editor of the
newspaper in Chelsea, because they were in such a desperate position.
So we responded to that.
The Social Liberal “, “
Q: So you're a social liberal, actually, all these years?
A: So far as I can tell. Except I don't buy a lot
of crap. And if you don't become politically correct, then you're
written off as some kind of a social conservative.
But I was the one who took the initiative with the trustees to
establish the Boston Scholars Program, which has given $120 million to
graduates of Boston high schools, about $5 million each year, to make
it possible for these minority kids to have a college education. Their
tuition is paid for four years. The value of that, at the present time,
is about $140,000 per kid. We established the [Cardinal Humberto]
Medeiros Scholarships. I was the one who took that initiative, so the
same benefit would be available to the archdiocesan schools. And we've
put about $20 million so far into that, about $1.4 million each year. I
don't know how insensitive that is. Ambassador [Charles R.] Stith,
after he came back from Africa, had lunch with me one day, and he was
telling me his plan about this African Presidential Archives. Why the
hell did he come to me? Why didn't he go to Boston College, or
Northeastern, or Tufts? He came to see me, and we got the thing
started, and it's flourishing.
Also, I had a splendid record in terms of hiring women into vice
presidential positions and deans' positions. Our executive vice
president for years was Mary-Jane Hemperley, and there was a really
bright, intelligent woman who could handle budgets and had
administrative skills of an enormously high quality. She really
developed the civil service at Boston University. She's just brilliant.
And I hired her. I didn't ask how many degrees she had, or anything
else. I hired her on the basis of her competence. And I have intervened
frequently on behalf of women faculty who, before they had tenure, were
somewhat controversial. Go see Margaret Hagen — she's available at the
psychology department. Ask her what she thinks about it.
Q: You sound as if you're trying to defend your record. Are you afraid of being thought a conservative?
A: I'm not trying to defend my record, because I didn't ask for this interview. You asked me to have the interview.
Q: I know, and I'm gratefulï¿½
A: So, okay, I'm having the interview with you
because you asked for it. Not because I feel that there's some terrible
need to justify myself. I'm just fed up with the endless
Q: But suddenly you've raised this topic of social conservatism.
A: When you're dealing with the press, and you
have been mischaracterized by the press year after year, sometimes it
seems that the press ought to be interested in the facts instead of in
the lazy habit of simply repeating any falsehood that they can find in
a previous issue of the newspaper.
Q: I'd guess that some of that reputation for
conservatism also stems from your record here at the university, where
you've upheld certain classical traditions. You have been very
distrustful of the theorists, the Frankfurt School, things like that,
which have a sharply left-wing tinge.
A: We've got plenty of left-wingers. We've had
plenty of left-wing professors at Boston University. And contrary to
the statement that has been repeated in the newspapers ad nauseam, I
never fired a tenured professor. Not one.
Q: Well, you can't.
A: No, it's not because you can't. You can fire a
professor for serious misconduct or incompetence. For example, when [BU
history professor] Howard Zinn was passing the hat in his class to let
people draw their grades, and he told them in advance that there were
only A's and B's in the hat, that's grounds for firing somebody. [Zinn
contests this version of events.] You could certainly fire a person for
that and make it stick. I wasn't about to make a martyr out of Howard
Zinn, and he taught here until he finally decided to resign. It's not
that you can't fire people when they have been sufficiently deficient.
Howard Zinn led a group of students to disrupt a meeting of the Latin
American Development Studies Program at Boston University when they had
a conference on “Quo Vadis, Latin America?” And they had a couple of
presidents from South America and Central America, and they had what we
would probably call the treasurer, Roberto Campos, from Brazil, and
Colombian President Carlos Lleras Restrepo and other very distinguished
people. Well, he tried to break that up. I could have fired him for
that. No question about it. That's not permitted academic behavior. I
could have fired him under the criteria of the AAUP rules. So, it's
just not true.
I don't mind having people disagree with me, but I think one thing
that some left-wing professors don't want is anybody to criticize them.
I think that I offended many people when I decimated the postures and
the lies of Noam Chomsky in an article I wrote called “Poisoning the
Well in Academe.” That wasn't a conservative screed on my part. That
was a liberal's devotion to the truth, and the exposure of a liar, a
person who assaults the mind by putting in false evidence.
Q: You come across as being pugnacious. How do you characterize yourself?
A: It depends on the situation. I think there are
times in which I am in a situation that calls for being resolute. When
there were students setting fire to buildings on the campus of Boston
University, and when there were riots, and students preventing students
from going into buildings, then I think being resolute was absolutely
required. When it came time to consider a person such as [a member of
the faculty] who had become ill and hadn't bothered to take out medical
insurance, and I asked one of our vice presidents who handles that part
of the university to go talk to the insurance company and to tell them
that we think, considering the size of our contract here, that they
ought to overlook the fact that he had forgotten to get his coverage. I
succeeded in doing that, so that at that time, it was about $3,000 —
that would have been about $30,000 today — if he had adjusted for the
CPA. That wasn't pugnacious, and that wasn't aggressive; it was
considerate. But I didn't call a press conference to announce what I'd
done. And so far as I know, this is the first time I've ever mentioned
it to anybody.
Now, there are dozens of those things that have gone on. There aren't dozens of them; there are hundreds.
Q: I wonder whether a lot of your character isn't
derived from the fact that you were up against so many obstacles in
trying to build a university of this caliber.
A: Sure, absolutely. There's no question about
that. When I came here, I recognized at once that if you're dealing
with third-rate people, you very often can secure their cooperation,
because they enjoy associating with their betters. So you could take a
very weak department and say, “You know, I have a chance to recruit an
absolutely first-rate person,” and they'll be delighted. But if you get
a second-rate department, such as our classics department when I came
here . . . they passed themselves off as first rate, and I'm sure they
sincerely believed that they were first rate. But they weren't first
rate, and when I proposed William Arrowsmith as a member of the
faculty, and Donald Carne Ross or Jim Weisman or Thomas Gould,
the chairman of that department, Charlie Bye, went down to Texas, where
they were, to talk them out of coming, and tried to ask them, “Why
would you want to come to a lousy place like Boston University?” I
could have fired him for that, too. Because you don't have a right
to use university money to go traveling to tell people how bad the
university is. But I didn't fire Charlie Bye. I just went to the board
of trustees and I said, “Charlie Bye is a very good teacher, and an
adequate scholar. But he's not in the same class with the people I want
to recruit. And here are letters from distinguished classicists all
over the country” — Bill Arrowsmith had offers from Michigan, from
Princeton, from Yale, Johns Hopkins, from any number of places. And I
have submitted the dossiers on these individuals, and said, “If it is
the case that a department can veto the appointments of better
scholars, then I have to appeal to not just the Boston University
community of scholars, but the worldwide community of scholars, in
order to justify the appointments of better people.” The board of
trustees agreed with me and, on the basis of their authorization, I
offered tenured positions to those individuals. Gould turned us down;
he went to Yale instead. But that indicated the quality of the persons
whom I recruited. Well, do you think that Charlie Bye didn't hate my
guts? Of course he did! And some of the other members of the department
might have, I don't know. And Charlie, a couple of years later, left
for another position, which was just fine.
The View from the Sidelines
Q: And what about BU now? How's it doing without you?
A: It's too early to say. I think the new
president, Robert Brown, is off to a very smooth start. I have had one
conversation with him, for about two and a half hours, back in August,
before he took charge, and I haven't spoken to him since.
Q: He doesn't call, he doesn't write?
A: Well, I think he's been very, very busy. Every
time I've seen him at a public meeting, he's been very cordial, so I
don't see any sign of unfriendliness on his part. I know what it was
like when I first came to Boston University — I was working 100 hours a
week and did so for several years — and I'm sure he's probably doing
the same thing. And I think if he ever has an occasion where he thinks
he needs to talk to me, he probably will talk to me. But I don't fault
him in any way for not having spoken to me since that initial meeting.
I think he's got a lot to do.
Q: Do you miss the action?
A: I've got plenty of action. I've just finished a
short book on architecture. There's a book on Kant that I had finished
before I came here. But all my footnotes were burned up when our house
was set on fire shortly after I came, in 1972.
Q: Set on fire by . . . ?
A: I don't know. I don't know who set it on fire.
I know that the student newspaper editorialized that, when I made some
mention of what I'd lost, they said, well, you know, since property is
theft, whatever he's lost is something he's stolen, you know. This is
that good Marxist crap. And I really had a manuscript there that was
just dead, because there were no footnotes in it. And there's nothing
drearier than to try to figure out what are the footnotes for various
Q: Thirty years after the fact.
A: Or even 10 minutes after the fact. You can't;
there were thousands of footnotes in that 400-page manuscript. And so,
finally, I got all the footnotes back, but in the meantime, after the
passage of 30 years, I've been going back and reading secondary
literature to be sure that I'm still in the clear on my basic ideas,
and it's not all just passé. I hope to have it ready for the publishers
by, say, next January or February. And then I have a third book that I
got started in 1964. I had four chapters written on that, and I have
about three to go. That's on the importance of leverage in the
assessment of moral responsibility and legal responsibility. And those
are three projects.
Then, when I get those done, I want to do a book of essays, probably
one that will be just a book on all the commencement speeches that I
gave. I may just leave those as speeches. And then another one, just on
essays I have written. I've done so many eulogies by now that I could
do a book on necrology, and I don't know that I'll do that, but I
could. So it's not that I have nothing to do.
Q: And you're doing sculpture?
A: Yes. I finished that bas-relief of Elie Wiesel,
and I finished the bas-relief of [the late BU trustees chairman Arthur
G. B.] Metcalf some years ago, and I have several projects that I want
to finish. I really very much enjoy sculpture.
Q: Do you paint as well?
A: Well, I have painted. I majored in art when I
was in college, and I want to get back to that, too. I want to see what
I can do with watercolor, because watercolor is fast. You've either got
it or you've messed it up. And I'll probably start there. And then I
may go to oil. I still draw all the time, but just sketch faces and
things like that. The thing I like about art is it's the most nearly
ecstatic thing that I can do. When I'm working on that, time passes and
I'm just not aware of it at all. It took me about 13 hours to do that
bas-relief of Elie, and it took me about 10 hours to do the bas-relief
of Metcalf. Metcalf has an easier face to capture than Elie does.
Still, that's fairly fast.
Q: I understand you are sculpting a memorial for your son, David, who died in 1994.
A: That's the next project. It's for his gravestone.
Q: That must be a difficult subject. I don't think that too many people know he died of AIDS.
A: Well, they would be if they read the obituary
and if they went to the memorial service, because there was no effort
to hide that. I not only mentioned it, but I also commented on the
young man who he was associated with. Who also died of AIDS about six
Q: In Straight Shooting , some of your comments about homosexuality seemed to suggest that it was immoral. Is that how you felt?
A: What passage are you talking about?
Q: There was a passage about a continuum, or a
straight line, that you referred to, where exclusive heterosexuals were
at one extreme, exclusive homosexuals were at the other extreme, and
the authors made no attempt to make any moral distinctions. And you
complained about this. Do you remember?
A: No, I sure don't. I did a review of Pterodactyls that was never published. You know that play?
Q: No, I don't.
A: It's a play about homosexuals, and it was one
of the nastiest, most obscene discussions of homosexuality that I could
imagine. And I thought that it was the most offensive thing that
anybody could say about a homosexual. Because the person was so eager
to encourage the bathhouse encounter, or any kind of encounter, in
which one endangers himself by just having a sexual relationship with
anybody under any circumstances, anytime, anywhere, and seemed to glory
in running the risk of having AIDS and dying of AIDS. And I thought
that was terrible.
If you tell me what passage it is in Straight Shooting , I'll be very glad to comment on it. I'm not avoiding it, but I just don't recognize it from your description.
Q: “The relativist moral theory” — that was your phrase.
A: Do you know what chapter it was? Because I've got a copy of the book.
Q: I've got a copy right here. Let me take a look at it . . . Oh, here we are. It's page 23.
A: Teacher in a public society, yeah. The first paragraph? Oh, to explain homosexuality. Oh, this is the Changing Bodies, Changing Lives thing.
This is the introduction of this book into the schools at a very, very
early age, you see. That's the context. See, this begins on page
21. “Nothing undermines the confidence of parents and the general
public in our teachers and schools more than the way in which many of
our schools teach children and teenagers about sex.” And that's the
context in which this is discussed. And then I say, for example, “One
of the splashiest books on the market and used in many high schools is Changing Bodies, Changing Lives .
Aimed at teenagers, the text reduces all moral norms to what they call
personal value judgments. That locution creates a contradiction in
terms so evident that any competent philosopher should recognize it. A
value judgment is an objective claim; a personal judgment is merely a
preference. Those who espouse personal value judgments treat value
judgments as if they were Good Housekeeping seals of approval
that one licks and pastes on any idea, object, or activity that one
happens to like. Such preferences are not values.” And I go on to
examine all of that.
It continues, after several omissions, “There is not a philosopher
or a moral teacher in the history of mankind who has approved such
rubbish. Taken seriously, it offers no basis for human rights or human
dignity, since by definition human existence has been reduced to the
level of animals. To stimulus and response.” Now, that doesn't make any
sense until you read some of those passages that I've left out.
But, to explain homosexuality — I'm talking about the book, now —
this is not solely about homosexuality. To explain it, the book offers
teenage boys and girls a diagram consisting of a horizontal line.
Exclusively homosexual individuals are at one end of the line, high
schoolers are told, and exclusively heterosexual individuals are at the
other. In an effort to provide underpinning for its relativist moral
theory, the book asserts that most people lie somewhere in between,
tending toward one or another of these extremes.
The implied question here is, where are you on the line? Now that's
just, as I said, an insipid and intellectually insulting
nonexplanation. Because there's no evidence for where these people
really are located. I doubt seriously that most people are located in
the middle. The bisexual, the AC/DC, would be located in the middle,
and the idea that most people are AC/DC is nonsense.
Q: They might have some interest in sexual
relations with others on some subtle level that's never explored —
isn't that possible?
A: Well, no. When you use the word “might,” you can take it anywhere.
Q: I guess the question I would pose to you is about the morality of homosexuality. Do you think it is in any way immoral?
A: It depends on the context. I think there's
something seriously immoral about the man-boy organization that
encourages pedophilia between adult men and small boys. That's not only
immoral, in my opinion, it's criminal.
Q: But that's an easy one. What about —
A: But that also establishes a mark. You asked me
if it's moral or immoral. That's a good example of one that's an
extreme of immorality. Now, between two consenting adults, it might be
or it might not be, depending on what it's like. I know that there are
very often people who are not homosexual who are pushed into it by peer
There are also people who engage in what some people regard as
homosexual acts. For example, young adolescents who get together and
masturbate. They're not necessarily homosexual at all; they just don't
have girls and they couldn't have a way with them. That was true in my
day, when I was a teenager. Now sex among teenagers is so readily
available that I don't suppose that problem arises very often. But I
think there's something terribly immoral about casual sex. I think sex,
the sexual relationship, is a very profound relationship; in fact, it's
probably the most profound interpersonal relationship that one can
have. And an interrelationship that, in the heterosexual context, can
give rise to a new human being. I think it is appalling and degrading
when that is trivialized the way it has been at the present time. And I
think it's going to be very difficult to maintain a wholesome
relationship among adults when they do want to get married, and when
they do want to have children. There is one study where — I can't
recall the author — they pointed out that when young adolescent boys
are watching pornography regularly, they are interested only in sex
that involves some kinds of extremes that you find in pornographic
films. And so the ordinary relationship you're likely to get into when
you get married makes them relatively impotent, gives them erectile
dysfunction. I think this is very sad.
Now, I think there are some young males who evidently do not find
any attraction for females. Better data now indicate that that's
probably around 3 percent of the population, not 10 percent of the
population. But it's a significant element. And if that's the case,
what are they supposed to do? One can say the answer to that is that
they should be celibate. That's a pretty extreme thing to require,
because I think that at least most normal males, or at least, speaking
for myself, I think I would have found it impossible to be celibate.
And I'm not going to tell somebody else to do something that I don't
think I could do.
Q: Were you accepting of David's homosexuality?
A: I've never failed to accept him. I was sorry
that that happened to be the case, because I believe that homosexuals
have a very hard time. And one of the last things David said to me
before he died was that he had two regrets. One was that he had no
children. Well, being a homosexual is not the way to arrange that. And,
two, he said he wished he'd been more careful. And that was very sad.
One newspaper claimed I had disowned my son. And I called for a
retraction. I got no retraction. But David died in our home, and there
was never a time when David and I ever had broken our relationship.
That was just totally false.
“I Never Would Have Apologized”
Q: Looking back at your career, are there mistakes you made that you regret?
A: Sure, everybody does.
Q: Like what?
A: See, I'm not the pope. I'm not infallible. Even
the pope doesn't say he's infallible on everything. He just says he's
infallible when he's sitting in his chair to speak on faith and morals.
And I think I've made relatively few mistakes when I'm just sitting
here working on philosophy and speaking about faith and morals. I think
that's a pretty safe area.
Q: But when you venture out of that?
A: Well, sure. I made mistakes in judgment about
people. I think Goldin is an example of a mistake I made, and a damned
good one. I don't buy that old-fashioned statement that if I'm going to
make a mistake, I might as well make a good one. I'd rather not make
the good one. I wish it had been something less serious. But, sure,
that was a mistake, and I've made plenty of other mistakes.
Q: When Harvard president Larry Summers started
making waves, first by calling Cornel West on the carpet, and then by
making comments about women in science, I couldn't help thinking that
these were the sorts of things that John Silber might have said. Did
A: No, John Silber would have outlined what Cornel
West's scholarly record really amounted to, and said, quite clearly,
“I'm not impressed by it.” And he would have looked at some of the
publications made by Bill Gates—who's brilliant, by the way—of his
Q: Henry Louis Gates Jr., you mean, not Bill.
A: Yeah, Henry Louis Gates, sure. Yeah. He's not in
Microsoft. No. But he's really brilliant. But he did a shoddy piece of
work on that encyclopedia, and I would have reviewed just all the
mistakes, obvious factual mistakes, errors that were made in that book,
and say, “I expect members of the Harvard faculty to do better than
that.” And there's no excuse for it, because I don't take the view that
our black scholars should be held to a lower standard than our white
scholars. I think scholarship is scholarship, truth is truth, and in
the world of learning, ignorance is no excuse.
Having correctly reprimanded Cornel West on his rap career and the
way in which he's left serious scholarship behind, I would never have
apologized. And when West left Harvard, I would have said that it was
an example of creative emigration. One person leaves, and he improves
two institutions. He improved Harvard by leaving, and improved
Princeton, perhaps, by going there. And I'd let it go at that. People
would have laughed, and that would have been the end of it. But by
apologizing, Summers got himself into a hell of a lot of trouble.
Q: Similarly, when Summers made his remarks about
women and science, did he, in your mind, just get himself into further
trouble by apologizing?
A: Yeah, he got into a lot of further trouble. And
the president of MIT, the president of Princeton, and the president of
Stanford wrote to denounce him before they'd even seen his text. I
thought that was a breach of responsibility on the part of all three
presidents. When you read his text, there was nothing there to
apologize for. He was raising the question: Do we have a taboo subject
in the academy? I don't believe there is a subject that is taboo within
a university. I think you have a right to investigate anything, and
find out what the truth is. All Summers did was to suggest that we try
to discover the truth on this subject. He didn't come to a hard and
fast conclusion and say, “And the reason is this, that women are not as
good at it.” He was raising that as a subject for study, and I don't
think he should have apologized at all, any more than that man in
Washington should have apologized for using the word
“niggardly,” which just means stingy and cheap. And some black person
accused him of making a racist comment, and he apologized. He should
have said, “No, go to a dictionary and educate yourself.”
Q: Are people in authority running scared these days?
A: Many are. But ask why. They're not going to be
shot at or put in prison. They're probably not going to be fined.
They're not going to lose their jobs. Why does it take courage when
there is no risk?
A lot of the time people would tell me, “You know, Silber, you're
very courageous.” I don't think I'm courageous at all. What's
courageous about someone in the position that I've been in?
Q: Well, you're facing down the prospect of shame.
A: If you do something shameful, then you ought to be ashamed.
Q: That's basically what they're accusing President Summers of.
A: But you see, Summers has done nothing to be
ashamed of, and that's why he shouldn't apologize. Once he apologizes,
then you wonder whether he's done something naughty. That's why a
person should not do things for which they have to apologize. But if
they do, then it ought to be a very rare circumstance, and there ought
to be a pretty clear reason why it's wrong, and a pretty clear
explanation of why it's never going to happen again.
I know this: There's great enthusiasm for me among people around the
state of Massachusetts, and among the alumni of Boston University. And
I think there's a lot of affection among students, because I get too
many letters from them when they come back. Some of them who I put in
jail when they were students have come back 10 years later to say, “You
know, that was one of the best things you did. It's the first time you
ever made me think about what I needed to do. And about whether what I
was doing was right or wrong.”
When I would arrest those students, back in the'70s, when they would
disrupt things on campus, you'd warn them and you'd tell them, “Now,
this is time to leave, because otherwise I'm going to have to call in
the police.” And you're telling them, “Look, Mr. Howard Zinn has left,
he's your Judas goat, he's leading you to the slaughter. Now, since
he's gone, why don't you go?” And if they don't go, then you arrest
them. When that happened, I would always take a photographer down to
the jail to take color photographs of the students who claimed they'd
suffered physical abuse. Because I wanted them to show where. They
hadn't been hit by the cops, but they would say, “Oh, yeah, he hit me
on the head.” The photographer would pull their hair apart, and take a
photograph up close. Not a mark on them. They said they were hit by a
billy club; if so, there would damned sure have been a mark.
And I remember when the students were building those shanties
because of South Africa. We had [Zulu leader Mangosuthu] Buthelezi here then. And I was in direct
correspondence with Nelson Mandela, and arranged scholarships for two
of Mandela's relatives so that they could attend Boston University, and
had very appreciative comments from Mandela about this. I wasn't
ignorant about what was going on in South Africa. And people like
Buthelezi and Mandela were not in favor of all these sanctions that
were being proposed. General Motors, IBM, and Ford were violating
apartheid laws all the time by allowing their black workers to eat in
the cafeterias, and by moving them into middle management. And if they
were going to have any blacks who were trained to run the country when
apartheid was ended, somebody had to be educating them, or training
them. And that's what was going on.
So when the students were protesting the South African situation, I
met with them, and they said BU must divest in General Motors and IBM.
And I said, “Why should we do that? Is it immoral to own that
stock?” Absolutely immoral to own it. And I said, “So then, we're
supposed to sell it to somebody? We can't divest unless we sell it to
somebody. And if we burn the stock, that just helps General Motors,
because it reduces the amount of stock outstanding, so that can't be
right. If we sell it to somebody, we have just gotten rid of our guilt
in order to impose guilt on somebody else.”
Q: What did they say back?
A: They just got sort of confused, and didn't
know, and I said, “So that can't be the answer.” And I said, “Tell me,
how many of you own General Motors cars?” A lot of them did. I said,
“Divest of the cars.” And the chairman of that meeting said, to her
everlasting glory, “Well, you don't expect us to do something that
affects our lives.” And I said, “Yeah, I really do. That's the whole
point. You sit here pontificating, you own IBM computers, you own
General Motors cars, and you tell us to divest. But once a stock issue
has been made, the corporation doesn't care whether you sell it, burn
it, or anything else, because they've already got all the money they're
ever going to get from that stock. So they don't care. But if you stop
buying their products, they do care. And so if you will boycott General
Motors cars, you can affect General Motors. But you won't affect
General Motors by changing the stock holdings of Boston University's
Then they put up the shacks. I told the police, “Go ask them three
questions: Do you have a title to the property? (They built them on our
property, not theirs.) Do you have a building permit? We have to have
building permits. Have you got a clearance with the historical
commission, because this is a historical district? If the answer is no
to those three questions, then you tell them, 'We'll give you about 15
minutes to remove your shanty. And if you don't, you'll be arrested.'”
I said, “Now, none of them are going to remove their shanty, so
you're going to have to arrest them. But I want you to be very gentle,
and I want you to take them to the paddy wagon singing, 'It's just a
shanty in old shanty town.'” Because one point I want to get across to
these students is, I do not take them seriously. This is not some very
deeply felt, high moral cause on their part; this is showboating of a
very insincere kind by most of these students, and I want them to
understand that I see through their pretensions.
Q: How did that go down?
A: It went down fine. We got rid of the shanties.
Q: And how many students were carted off to jail?
A: Very few.
The Local Legacy
Q: Now that you've been in Boston for 35 years or
so, you're one of the rare outsiders who has, I would say, affected
Boston far more than Boston has affected them. In what ways have you
changed the city by your having been here, outside of the university?
A: I think I've certainly had an effect in
Chelsea. That's different. And I started the BU Academy, and that's
provided an educational opportunity of a very high quality in a very
imaginative program, where the last two years of the courses in that
program are done in Boston University, so kids get through and recover
a couple of years that they've lost by an unconscionable extension of
the K-through-12 program. When I graduated from high school, I was 16.
Some kids were 17, but almost nobody was 18. Now, almost no one is
under 18, and many of them are 19 or 20, when they get out of high
school. That's terrible. These are some of the most exciting years of
their lives, when they can learn more than at any other time. Their
minds are like sponges, and this is the time to work them hard and
advance their careers, so they create a bank of learning on which they
can draw for the rest of their lives. That's a very small thing, but
it's had some effect.
And I think I had some salutary effect when I was the chairman of
the Board of Education in Massachusetts. I would have had a greater
influence there if [then governor Paul] Cellucci hadn't asked me to
resign, because I think it was very important to put higher standards
there. I think the MCAS mess could easily have been avoided. I
advocated canceling the contract with the people who were doing that
test, and instead use the Iowa test or the Stanford Nine, because those
are national tests, and would give us some understanding of where our
kids stood relative to the rest of the country.
And certainly, when it comes to English, science, and mathematics,
it doesn't matter whether the test had been made in China, Germany, or
France. These subjects are sufficiently objective that the tests don't
need to be designed for the Massachusetts curriculum. If the
Massachusetts curricula don't achieve competence in those areas, I
don't care what their frameworks are. They're no good.
Q: Regardless of where the test comes from or who
it's intended for, a lot of people object to the standardized test.
They complain about teachers' teaching to the test, and many other
factors that are hurting students' educational experience.
A: Yeah, but that's just knee-jerk talk. I'd like<br /