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.
Silber died of kidney failure at his Brookline home, BU spokesman Colin Riley said.
Silber took over BU, then a financially troubled commuter school of middling reputation, in 1971 and used his forceful — some said imperious — personality to remake it into a prominent national university.
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 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 president until 1996, and was university chancellor from 1996 until 2003.
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 Weld. In that role he helped institute the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, a standardized 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 PILOT payments — he gave opportunity to thousands of Boston Public School students and that legacy continues today.”
But Silber’s chances of another run for governor were undermined by lingering controversy over the sale of a BU-controlled company that resulted in a $387,000 payment to Silber. A state investigation found no crimina
l wrongdoing but contradicted Silber’s claims he had never received money from the sale, and the state official overseeing public charities criticized how the university was being run.