By Jay Rogers
Published April 1, 1990
Controversial Boston University president John Silber recently announced his intention to run for Governor of Massachusetts. Silber explained his decision to enter the political fray of the Bay State: “One of the reasons why I am in this campaign is that I am testing the proposition that rational political discussion is still possible in this country.”
Silber, who is known for his polemic speaking style and strong stances, has also been credited as the man who put Boston University “back on the map.” The BU president extended his philosophy of reform in education to the troubled urban setting of Chelsea, Massachusetts as Boston University took charge of the city’s public school system this year.
If elected, Silber proposes to bring his life long success as an educator to the state level. Silber’s “get tough” approach to educational reform includes requiring higher SAT scores for college entrants and that public school teachers pass competency tests.
Silber’s penchant for controversy stems from his self-described postition as a “procedural conservative and a substantive liberal.” On certain issues he is profoundly conservative; his abortion stance is pro-life; his foreign policy is staunchly anti-communist and interventionist. Yet his support for social spending to aid the poor and his dedication to the public schools has placed some of his views alongside the traditional liberal politics of Massachusetts.
Although he believes that the current welfare system is disastrous, he attributes this state of affairs to misspending. Spending on education, according to Silber, is an investment in securing opportunities for future generations.
Having grown up during the Depresssion, and having had to struggle with a physical handicap, Silber has obtained a compassion for the sick and needy. Yet his tone changes when addressing the problem of the welfare state: “It must always be the overriding concern of a welfare program that welfare be liberating, not enslaving,” says Silber.
His proven ability to overcome has made him a national figure, yet one of his greatest challenges will be to secure a nomination at the Democratic Party’s convention in June. Silber’s deviation from traditional liberal politics has earned him many enemies within Massachusetts’ dominant party. Yet some political observers have suggested that it would be an unwise move for the Democratic Party to keep a candidate of Silber’s stature and national reputation off the fall primary ticket.
Highest of all Silber’s attributes is his incomparable intelligence and his love for debate. His ability to disarm foes using forceful eloquence has made him a media spectacle as well as a formidable political candidate. Part of the Democratic Party’s reticence to his candidacy may be related to an underlying fear of the gains Silber might make against his contenders in a televised debate.
The fact remains that Silber is likely to continue to draw national media attention which will only increase his strength as a candidate. He has sought to bolster his candidacy by including a staff of experienced advisers, such as former Boston Mayor Kevin White, currently employed by Boston University as a political science professor. Furthermore, his role as an outsider to Massachusetts’ politics during the state’s current fiscal crisis is likely to give him appeal to working people.
As the June convention nears, Silber’s stridency will be tested. His love for the battle of ideas and his brash speaking style is unlikely to change as he shifts his focus from the academic world to the political arena. However, in an attempt to reform the American educational system, Silber’s strongest contribution to society will be made as his ideas are heard by the public as the national media covers his candidacy.
B.U. President Silber comments on April 1990 article:
I appreciated your letter of May 5 and the opportunity to see your article about my campaign. (The Forerunner, April 1990, “B.U. President Enters Race for Governor”) I noticed a small error; Kevin White is not on my campaign staff, but he is a close friend. He plays a role in my campaign either on or off the staff. Otherwise, your summary of my objectives is superb.
Boston University President
Candidate for Governor of Massachusetts
See also: The Boston Awakening
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