BOSTON — 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.
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 F. 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 BU president until 1996, and was university chancellor from 1996 to 2003.
Mr. 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 Mr. Weld. In that role he helped institute the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, a standardized test 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 [payments in lieu of taxes]. He gave opportunity to thousands of Boston public school students and that legacy continues today.”
Mr. 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 academic “fads” that he said compromised traditional learning. He publicly debated left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky over communism in Central America and refused to include “sexual orientation” in the university’s official nondiscrimination policy.
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.
BU, with more than 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is the nation’s fourth-largest private university.
His wife, Kathryn, whom he 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.