BOSTON (AP) — John Silber, the sharp-tongued, pugnacious public intellectual who transformed Boston University during a quarter-century as president and mounted an unsuccessful run for governor of Massachusetts, died Thursday. He was 86.
Silber died of kidney failure at his Brookline home, BU spokesman Colin Riley said.
Silber took over BU, then a financially troubled commuter school of middling reputation, in 1971 and used his forceful — some said imperious — personality to remake it into a prominent national university.
Erudite and combative, he was an outspoken critic of political correctness, communism and popular culture, but he considered himself a liberal on many issues. He was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 but was narrowly defeated by Republican William Weld — a loss many blamed on a television interview shortly before the election during which he snapped at a reporter who asked him about his weaknesses. He remained president until 1996, and was university chancellor from 1996 until 2003.
Silber, who as president had BU take over the city of Chelsea's troubled public school system, was later appointed chairman of the state Board of Education by Weld. In that role he helped institute the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, a standardized that high school students must pass to receive a diploma.
"His passion for education spanned every corner of our state," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said. "It wasn't just in speeches or policy — under his leadership Boston University provided the resources to our students in the form of scholarships and PILOT payments — he gave opportunity to thousands of Boston Public School students and that legacy continues today."
But Silber's chances of another run for governor were undermined by lingering controversy over the sale of a BU-controlled company that resulted in a $387,000 payment to Silber. A state investigation found no criminal wrongdoing but contradicted Silber's claims he had never received money from the sale, and the state official overseeing public charities criticized how the university was being run.
Silber was born in San Antonio with a deformed right arm truncated below the elbow. He rejected suggestions his confrontational personality was somehow a compensation for his handicap, which he made little effort to conceal, often using the stub at the end of his arm for delicate tasks, even tying his shoes. His hobbies included sculpture.
At BU he was known for extravagant parties and a short temper but also had huge ambitions for the school. His presidency saw BU's endowment increase from just $18.8 million to $450 million, its square footage double and the recruitment of prominent faculty including Nobel Prize winners Elie Wiesel, poet Derek Walcott and novelist Saul Bellow.
He built a reputation as a conservative on academic and social issues by clashing with university faculty over what he called academic "fads" that compromised traditional learning.
He publicly debated left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky over communism in Central America and faced criticism for refusing to include "sexual orientation" in the university's official nondiscrimination policy. As chancellor, he was also criticized for shutting down the Gay-Straight Alliance group at the Boston University Academy high school.
But he sometimes bristled at the conservative label, noting he had worked against the death penalty and for integration during his early academic career at the University of Texas.
"If you don't become politically correct, then you're written off as some kind of social conservative," he said in a 2005 interview with Boston Magazine.
After leaving the presidency, Silber remained a powerful and often controversial force in university politics. He continued to serve as chancellor and took over the president's duties again during a presidential search in 2003. That search collapsed when the university's board offered former NASA chief Daniel Goldin the job, then rescinded the offer in a dispute that was partly about Silber's continued role and his relationship with the board of trustees.
The episode prompted an overhaul of BU's board, which critics contended was too cozy with Silber and had made him one of the country's highest-paid college presidents, with compensation as high as $775,000 as president. Silber resigned as chancellor and agreed to move to a new office away from the building where the university's top executives work.
BU, with more than 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is the nation's fourth largest private university.
Silber received his undergraduate degree from Trinity University and his doctorate from Yale University. He taught at Yale and Texas and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. In addition to academic works on philosophy and opinion pieces, he published a 1989 book "Straight Shooting."
His wife, Kathryn, whom he met at Trinity and married in 1947, died in 2005. They had six daughters and two sons. One of their sons, David, died in 1995.
No details on memorial services were available.
Associated Press Education Writer Justin Pope contributed to this report.