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John Silber: The TT Interview

The outspoken former UT dean and Boston University president on higher education's past, present and future — including his opinion of U.S. News & World Report's rankings, Howard Zinn and online degree programs.

John Siber

John Silber's departure from the University of Texas at Austin in 1970 is the stuff of academic legend. A popular dean of UT's now-disbanded College of Arts and Sciences, his views on education and the university's future clashed irreconcilably with those of powerful Regent Frank Erwin. Ultimately, Erwin remained and Silber headed to Boston, where he served for more than three decades at Boston University, first as president and later as chancellor.

It has been a long time since Silber worked at UT. He began as a teacher of philosophy in 1957, and by 1962 he was chair of the department. In 1967, he assumed a position second only to the president in power and scope. He was dean of a school that included the majority of UT students — a combination of what, since his departure, have been separated into the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Natural Sciences.

At Boston University, he grew the school's reputation by recruiting high profile faculty members like Nobel Prize winners Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel. He blossomed into an academic celebrity in his own right, and even attempted to convert his status into a political career. In 1990, he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat, but lost to Republican William Weld, who some viewed as a more liberal option.

He has never been in the habit of holding back. At every stop along the way, Silber's outspoken views have stirred controversy and met with opposition.

This week, Silber returned to the Forty Acres to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the school's prestigious Plan II Honor's Program, in which he says he encountered the best students of his career. 

He took some time out of his trip to talk to the Tribune about the past, present and future of the University of Texas and higher education in general — including U.S. News & World Report rankings ("bogus"), Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States ("incompetent and inaccurate") and online degree programs ("fraudulence").

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