Dr. John Silber ’47

A Straight Talker

Dr. John Silber hasn't wasted a single moment of time since his birth in 1926.  As the seventh president of Boston University, he helped boost the university endowment from $18 million when he took the helm to $654 million, when he stepped down.  This Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts in 1990 is committed to the purity of learning.  

By Donna Parker

John Silber, president emeritus of Boston University, has never been one to let grass grow under his feet.  He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and fine arts from Trinity in 1947 and at 84 years of age, still teaches philosophy and law and spends a great deal of his time writing books.   Two have been published; another on Kant’s ethics is en route to the publisher, and he’s working on two volumes of essays.

“I think retirement is the pits,” he states forcefully.  “Retirement is another form of attenuated death.  I find no attraction in it.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that this summa cum laude Trinity graduate is direct, determined, and downright humorous.  Completely unafraid to share his very definite opinions, John liberally sprinkles his smart talk with laughs, attributable to his wry sense of humor.

At Trinity, John also minored in German and music and studied art under the renowned Dr. Pompeo Coppini and his assistant Waldine Tauch, both in the department of art.

“I also studied with Ada Rollinson and Don McLeod, both in the department of art.  She taught pen and ink and more courses in drawing and oil painting and Don taught watercolor.  So I worked very hard in all of these fields, and on graduation also received the Coppini Gold Medal for painting as a graduating senior,” he says proudly, adding that he considered art as a career.
“Although I probably could have scratched a living out of it, I wouldn’t be able to support a family, and I definitely wanted a family.”

“Upon graduation, I applied to and was admitted to the Yale Divinity School.  After a year there, I went to the University of Texas Law School, and I dropped out of that and then went back to Yale to take a Ph.D. in philosophy.  I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.  And none of it made any sense until I pulled all of those educational factors together—the philosophy major, the major in fine arts, the minor in music, the year in divinity school, the time in law school—and you ask, ‘What does this qualify me for?’  It’s an amazing preparation for being a college president.”

Does this deep thinker have any advice for Trinity’s new president?

“I wouldn’t want to give him advice because he is a mature and accomplished man who has his own ideas.  I do believe a university education should not be an indoctrination, nor have an ideological point of view.  And to hell with political correctness.”

“The faculty members need the freedom to think things through and to act according to their best knowledge and judgment.  And students have the same right.  I believe that the purpose of a university or college is to help the young student discover his or her abilities and also to discover what they’re not good at, which is just as important. There’s not enough time in an undergraduate education to achieve fulfillment, but one can develop in ways that open doors to further development.”

“I found that Trinity did all of these things because it was not a research university.  It was a university in which the faculty was dedicated to students and teaching.”

And although he studied hard, John was not averse to having a good time.

“If you can believe this, I played football.  That shows you two things.  One, I’m totally without talent, absolutely incompetent; two, the football program was so bad at Trinity that I could qualify for the team.  It was really ridiculous,” he laughs.

John also organized the Triniteers and became the first president and he joined the debate team where he met his late wife Kathryn Underwood ‘46.  They went onto have seven children and 23 grandchildren.

“One thing I think is worth mentioning is that I was so impressed by the quality of teaching that I had at Trinity that I set up a scholarship program in honor of George Schrader, Frances Hendricks, Ina Beth McGavock, and Albert Herff-Beze.  These were four exceptional teachers.  I could have added Coppini to that list, but he didn’t stay at Trinity long enough to have the kind of effect that these other professors did.  I hope to contribute more to that particular fund because I think what made Trinity so splendid from my point of view was the quality of teaching.”

You may contact Dr. Silber at keoconno@bu.edu.

After reading this story if you feel strongly about any Trinity alumni who the Alumni Office should profile in future AlumNet issues, please submit your suggestions.  We are looking for suggestions in these four categories:  1) recent grads, 2) grads who innovate, 3) grads in business, and 4) grads who serve the world. Feel free to nominate yourself if you fall in these categories. -- AlumNet Moderator