AUSTIN, Texas – John R. Silber, former University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor and former dean of the once combined College of Arts and Sciences, died Thursday, Sept. 27. He was 86.
Though Silber was most recognized for transforming a faltering Boston University into one of the nation’s leading private schools, he was a native Texan who graduated summa cum laude in 1947 from Trinity University with majors in fine arts and philosophy. After graduation, he married his college debating partner, Kathryn Underwood. He studied for a year at Yale Divinity School, followed by a semester at the UT School of Law. He returned to Yale to complete a PhD in philosophy, specializing in Kant and the philosophy of education.
Former University of Texas at Austin President Harry Ransom was able to draw Silber back to Austin in 1957 with an offer for a position teaching philosophy. Silber would quickly become known for his liberal social views and devoutly Socratic and demanding teaching style that earned him an appointment as chairmen of the philosophy department.
In 1967, after only five years as department chair, he was promoted once again, this time to the position of Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In three years he replaced 22 department heads, citing their academic laziness and contentedness with the status quo. By 1970, his liberal politics, attitude and vision for the university’s future had brought him into such conflict with the chairman of the Board of Regents, Frank C. Erwin Jr., that Erwin fired Silber.
In an interview Silber gave to The Alcalde in 2007, he said, “I want the people of Texas to know that I never would have left Texas if Frank Erwin hadn’t fired me.”
Many speculate that if Silber had stayed, the University of Texas would have more strictly limited enrollment in order to consolidate resources and focus on attracting the kind of Nobel laureate professors Silber would eventually draw to Boston University. At the end of the day, Erwin and his “bigger is better” approach won out, but according to The Alcalde, this is one of the “great what-ifs in the history of The University of Texas.”
Silber moved on to the fill the vacant presidency of Boston University, which, at the time, was continually shrinking back into the ever-growing shadow of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology due to falling enrollments and growing deficits.
But it didn’t stay that way for long. Though many would describe his 25-year presidency as “tumultuous” at best, Silber built Boston University into a world-class research center and one of the nation’s largest private universities, with a faculty boasting Nobel laureates including Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow and Derek Walcott.
He raised endowments to $422 million from $18 million and research grants to $180 million from $15 million, and balanced the budget every year. He raised tuition to Ivy League levels and tightened admission standards, yet still saw enrollments climb by 10,000.
Silber and his wife, who died in 2005, had two sons, one of whom died in 1994, and six daughters. He is survived by his daughters Rachel Devlin, Ruth Silber-Belmonte, Martha Hathaway, Judith Ballan, Alexandra Silber and Caroline Lavender; another son, Charles Hiett; a brother, Paul; 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.