BY almost anybody's account, John Silber, the president of Boston University, is a brilliant academic. He is also a smart administrator who in 17 years at the university has enhanced its standing and academic standards. But when written about, his name is generally preceded by the adjective ``controversial.'' Perhaps that is because he also often espouses conservative causes in an academic atmosphere that is generally liberal.
Now Dr. Silber is in the midst of real controversy. He has announced stricter rules for the students who study and live at BU, an institution that in recent years has achieved a reputation in college guidebooks as ``the most promiscuous university in the country.'' Presumably this means it has the most promiscuous students in the country.
Instead of allowing guests around the clock in dormitory rooms, Silber thinks they ought to be out by 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and by 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Although some overnight guests might be allowed under certain conditions, only members of the same sex would be permitted.
University officials say they drafted the new rules in response to complaints from parents, staff, and some students. They are being criticized, they say, for ``failing to provide the kind of environment where an individual can quietly study and have his or her right to privacy protected.'' Silber himself got a letter from an angry parent protesting that her daughter's roommate had lived for two months with a boyfriend in their BU dormitory.
Says Silber: ``This has nothing to do with puritanism. It has everything to do with civility.'' Well, good for Silber. It is about time somebody responsible for running our colleges took a stand on behalf of taste and decency. There used to be parietal rules, but they got swept away in the permissive era of the 1960s and '70s. When I took my own first child to college, I was startled at the theme of the briefing held for parents. In essence it was: ``Your children are now adults. We are not responsible for their behavior. They're on their own.''
To expect an individual to make the transition from schoolchild to adulthood overnight seems an extraordinary abdication of responsibility on the part of those to whose care we thought we were consigning them. Some children may make that transition easily. But look around any college campus and you find that others have been plunged into college life with great lack of maturity. They need a little help, a little counsel, maybe a little protection far from home.
A lot of students, of course, do not see it this way. They interpret the rules Silber is proposing as a violation of personal and moral freedom. But what of the rights of students who want privacy, sleep, and study time in their rooms? If a university's purpose is academic education rather than sexual education, surely the right to study is preeminent. After the cost of an education today, it would be ironic if the students who want to sleep and study end up the ones checking into motel rooms.
The issue has roiled the Boston campus, which sprawls alongside the banks of the Charles River, but the stand Silber has taken has implications for colleges across the country. It brings to the fore the question of whether college authorities have any responsibility for what happens to their students outside the classrooms.
The Phil Donahue show, ever in quest of a controversial topic, staged a televised debate on the Boston University campus between proponents and opponents of the new rules. One student challenged Silber's right to introduce the new policy with: ``I'm the one paying your salary.'' Silber, ever provocative, retorted: ``You don't pay my salary. You don't even pay your own way.''
There is going to be more talk, much of it heated, before the new rules, along with other regulations on student use of alcohol, go into effect.
But in the meantime, a loud hurrah to Silber for bringing to the fore an issue too long sidestepped by many colleges.