The controversial John Silber. Mixing activism with college presidency

In the 15 years John Silber has been the very high-profile president of Boston University, controversy has followed him like a wake after a speeding boat. Few would dispute that Dr. Silber has been a driving force that has helped restore BU as a thriving, respected center of learning. But the former philosophy professor has also managed to spark confrontations along the way, with administrators, faculty, and students.

Among the latest was the awarding of an honorary degree Monday to a South African Zulu leader, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, who opposes sanctions against South Africa, a position Silber has long held. Some faculty members criticize him for not consulting them properly on honorary degree recipients, and students condemn the choice on political grounds.

Silber's tenure at BU raises what many education experts say is a vital question: Where does a university president draw the line between shaping and guiding the institution he shepherds, and using the campus as a vehicle for his own political or social agenda?

``It's almost impossible to make a separation between the president as institutional leader and the president as a private person with conscience and convictions,'' says Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation.

``In the best of all worlds, a college president - just as anyone in an institutional position - should be able to speak freely and act individually,'' he continues. ``But the realities are that the president comes the closest of anyone to being the personification of his institution....

``Any public utterances he makes or any stands he takes therefore carry enormous impact,'' Dr. Boyer says, ``and how those are received will reflect on how the institution is judged.''

Throughout his BU career, Silber has taken many outspoken and often conservative political stands. In 1982, for example, he called the burgeoning nuclear-freeze movement ``ill-timed'' and warned that its supporters would play into the hands of the Soviet Union.

Silber, who served on President Reagan's bipartisan commission on Central America, has been vocal in his support of aid to the contras fighting the Nicaraguan government, and he has opposed sanctions against South Africa. Once considered by the administration as a candidate for secretary of education and UN ambassador, Silber is known to be interested in a Washington post.

But many experts in the field say it's nothing new for a university president to be involved in some political fray. During the Vietnam war, for example, S.I. Hayakawa, then president of San Francisco State University, gained nationwide attention with his get-tough attitude in dealing with campus demonstrators.

John W. Chandler, president of Hamilton College in New York during the late 1960s, recalls that he felt ``on the spot'' then. He was asked to join other university presidents in sending a letter to President Johnson about the disruption antiwar activities was causing on campus - a letter that made front-page news, and that implicitly called for an end to the war. Dr. Chandler signed the letter, but he says he ``agonized over whether it was a proper stance'' for him to take.

``I was trying to be a responsible president and a responsible educator,'' says Chandler, who is now president of the Association of American Colleges.

``It's questionable for a president to use his title and authority to promote a personal agenda that doesn't relate to the mission of the institution,'' he says.

Many college presidents and education experts say that if a president tries to stamp his beliefs on an institution, he risks narrowing the avenues of dissent on campus, which flies in the face of a commitment to openness and diversity.

Although many of Silber's admirers - and some detractors - applaud him as a man of vision, ``the right man at the right place at the right time,'' says one supporter, others charge that he has clamped a lid on opposition to him or his ideals.

``It's a powerful price that's been paid'' for the progress BU has made under Silber, says one well-respected education authority, who asks not to be named. ``Internally, there's been a powerful loss of trust. Externally, it's just common knowledge that BU is run in a powerfully oppressive way.''

Richard Berendzen, president of American University, was astronomy chairman when Silber came to BU. He says the outspoken Texan hit the campus ``like a tidal wave.'' He adds, ``I rather liked Silber. He's a bright, forceful man.''

Dr. Berendzen, author of a book on the life of a university president, says a president ``is still a citizen, and has all the rights of free speech, to express his personal opinions.'' In his own tenure at American University, he says he has decided to draw a line ``at urging the university to take actions that support my own point of view.'' Instead, Berendzen says, he lends his name as individual - not university president - to causes.

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