Silber’s Way

On a Thursday afternoon, student and faculty protestors mixed with the flow of Boston University students on Commonwealth Avenue as they marched toward the university’s administrative offices on Silber Way.

The protest was organized in solidarity with the Service Employees International Union, the union that represents B.U.’s adjunct faculty. Several different causes came together for the protest, but demonstrators had a central message.

“B.U., come off it. Put people over profit,” they chanted.

Rachel Eckles led the chants using a megaphone. She is a student organizer for DivestBU, a group that wants the university to get rid of its investments in fossil fuels.

After rallying on Silber Way, the protest ended without incident.

Like many other universities, B.U. has a long history of protest. Under the late John Silber, who served as president of B.U. from 1971 to 1996 and is Silber Way’s namesake, the protest might not have ended peacefully. In 1971, Silber called the police to break up a student sit-in.

Silber warred with faculty, too, and some professors were not shy in speaking out. Neither are the professors involved in DivestBU today, albeit under different circumstances.

 

Caryl Rivers has been a journalism professor at B.U. for so long, she tells people she’s part of the building. She was also part of the B.U. Five, a group of tenured professors Silber tried to fire during the tumultuous spring of 1979.

Rivers sat in her spacious office in the College of Communication, tucked behind a huge desk. The walls were barely visible under hanging tribal masks, old pulp novel covers, and posters for her own books.

Rivers said she got tenure around 1974 under Silber, who also hired her. Ironic, considering she was to become one of his most well-publicized opponents.

And he had many. In a 1980 interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, Silber said, “A university is certainly not a democracy if it is any good. The more democratic the university becomes, the lousier it becomes.”

Rivers saw that principle in action. She said journalism faculty were “very upset” when Silber cut all funding to campus publications, leading The Daily Free Press to become independent. Silber told Mike Wallace he cut funding to school papers so he wouldn’t have to censor them.

The great catalyst for the chaos at B.U. in the late 1970’s, though, was not just a journalism department problem.

Silber told Mike Wallace he had a strict policy of reserving benefits like tenure only for the best. Political science professor and Silber opponent Howard Zinn wrote in his autobiography about the faculty’s response, which was to unionize.

In April 1979, after contract negotiations failed, the faculty went on strike. Silber relented after nine tense days, but Zinn and Rivers—along with Murray Levin, Fritz Ringer and Andrew Dibner—held their classes outside so they wouldn’t have to cross the picket lines of clerical workers, who continued to strike.

Silber threatened to fire them. A controversial proposition, Rivers said, considering they had tenure, and they became known as the “B.U. Five,” garnering support from other universities.

Once again, Silber backed down. But it left an impression. Although Rivers acknowledged Silber’s ample positive contributions to the university, one quality of his came up again and again.

“Silber was a very authoritarian president,” she said. “He didn’t like people disagreeing with him.”

 

Silber’s obituary in The New York Times puts into perspective just how long he was in charge at B.U. He served as president from 1971 to 1996, and then  as chancellor from 1996 to 2003. After that, from 2005 on, he lived in a university-paid residence in Brookline as president emeritus. He died in 2012.

Despite Silber’s decades of influence, B.U.’s administration today is not nearly as confrontational. But that doesn’t mean that the faculty have stopped pushing for change.

A bicycle leans against the wall outside Edward Loechler’s office. The office itself, overlooking Cummington Mall, is lit by natural light. In 2014, Loechler and other DivestBU faculty circulated a divestment petition among professors that Loechler said got nearly 300 signatures.

Loechler, playing with his white beard, said his Episcopalian upbringing led him to a life full of social and political action: gaining conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, working voter registration drives, and holding peace vigils in Coolidge Corner.

He came to the issue of climate change in the 2000s, “which is way too late,” he said. He called climate change “an existential threat to the world as we know it.”

Loechler decided to educate people about the problem and influence institutions like B.U. to take action.

He started giving a lecture on climate change every semester. At one lecture, he said, a student involved in B.U.’s divest movement approached him. After that, Loechler said he and other faculty members, like earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips and Jennifer Luebke of the medical school, became involved in what had initially been a student group.

After bringing the faculty petition to President Brown, Loechler said Brown told them the proper forum for their complaint was the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI). In 2016, the ACSRI recommended that the Board of Trustees divest from fossil fuels and develop a Climate Action Plan, a series of strategies developed to make the university greener.

The faculty petition, following two years of student activism, finally got divestment on the administration’s agenda.

After all, faculty are around longer than the students who start the movements. Masha Vernik, DivestBU’s media liaison, said this gives faculty voices greater power.

“The university administration is more likely to listen if they hear faculty support for it,” she said.

In the end, the Board of Trustees did not act on the ACSRI’s recommendation to fully divest, although President Brown wrote an email to the university last fall promising to avoid future investments in fossil fuels and to establish a Climate Action Plan.

Loechler said he was disappointed by the decision, but not by the course of events.

“I felt like this was a very serious, engaged, engaging process that was educational to a lot of people, and that moved this effort forward in a significant way,” he said.

Professor Jennifer Luebke, now a member of the task force charged with creating the university’s Climate Action Plan, agreed. She called the decision disappointing but said “significant progress was made by B.U.”

 

Caryl Rivers sees a stark difference between Silber and the current administration. She said she thinks the current administration would never respond to a labor issue like the response that caused the strike in 1979.

“It’s a real university now in terms of the way it’s run, when under Silber it was really one-man rule,” Rivers said.

DivestBU continues to stage demonstrations, which Jennifer Luebke identified as a shift away from the group’s original tactics. She said she supports student protest but also sees value in working within the system. Unlike professors involved in the 1979 strike who openly opposed the administration, Luebke stressed the fact that she does not see herself as a protestor.

“My point of view is faculty trying to get the institution to do the right thing,” she said.

 

Monuments to Silber

B.U. bears Silber’s mark in both its history and its campus. Here are the results of a Silber scavenger hunt.

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