Silber was born in San Antonio with a deformed right arm truncated below the elbow. He rejected suggestions his confrontational personality was somehow a compensation for his handicap, which he made little effort to conceal, often using the stub at the end of his arm for delicate tasks, even tying his shoes. His hobbies included sculpture.
At BU he was known for extravagant parties and a short temper but also had huge ambitions for the school. His presidency saw BU’s endowment increase from just $18.8 million to $450 million, its square footage double and the recruitment of prominent faculty including Nobel Prize winners Elie Wiesel, poet Derek Walcott and novelist Saul Bellow.
He built a reputation as a conservative on academic and social issues by clashing with university faculty over what he called academic “fads” that compromised traditional learning.
He publicly debated left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky over communism in Central America and faced criticism for refusing to include “sexual orientation” in the university’s official nondiscrimination policy. As chancellor, he was also criticized for shutting down the Gay-Straig
ht Alliance group at the Boston University Academy high school.
But he sometimes bristled at the conservative label, noting he had worked against the death penalty and for integration during his early academic career at the University of Texas.
“If you don’t become politically correct, then you’re written off as some kind of social conservative,” he said in a 2005 interview with Boston Magazine.
After leaving the presidency, Silber remained a powerful and often controversial force in university politics. He continued to serve as chancellor and took over the president’s duties again during a presidential search in 2003. That search collapsed when the university’s board offered former NASA chief Daniel Goldin the job, then rescinded the offer in a dispute that was partly about Silber’s continued role and his relationship with the board of trustees.