A Yellow Rubber Chicken: Battles At Boston University

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Boston University’s Department of Political Science, knowing I was no longer at Spelman (I was in Boston, writing two books on the South and the movement) offered me a job, to start in the fall of 1964. I accepted. They did not seem to be interested in the circumstances of my leaving Spelman. They had heard me give a lecture at B.U. several years earlier, they knew I had written a book which was given a prize by the American Historical Association (LaGuardia in Congress), and articles on the South for Harper’s, the Nation, and the New Republic. So I seemed to them a likely prospect.

But the beginning of my teaching at Boston University coincided almost exactly with the steep escalation of the United States’ war in Vietnam, after the hazy incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. I became involved immediately in the protests against the war: rallies, teachins, demonstrations, articles—one of these, for the Nation, arguing the case for withdrawal from Vietnam.

When I was hired, I was promised tenure after a year, which is a fairly strong guarantee of lifetime employment. But following that first year I was still without a tenure contract. A secretarial error, I was told. Another year passed (in which my antiwar activity increased) and another excuse was given.

Finally, in early 1967, the Department of Political Science held a meeting to vote on my tenure. There were a few professors opposed, saying flatly that my actions against the war were embarrassing to the university. On the other hand, student evaluations of my teaching were enthusiastic, and my fifth book was being published that spring. The department voted for tenure.

Approval came soon from the dean and the president. (This was four years before John Silber became president of the university.) All that remained was a vote of the Board of Trustees.

That spring of 1967, some students came to my office saying that the trustees were going to have their annual meeting, to coincide with a Founders Day dinner, and that the guest speaker would be Dean Rusk, secretary of state, in a splendid affair at the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Rusk was one of the strategists of the Vietnam War, and the students were going to organize a demonstration in front of the hotel. They wanted me to be one of the speakers.

I hesitated as I thought of my tenure decision in the hands of the trustees. But I could hardly say no—hadn’t I always maintained that risking your job is a price you pay if you want to be a free person? I must confess that my courage was not absolute; I envisioned that I would be one of many speakers and perhaps not be noticed.

When the evening of the big event came, I made my way to the Sheraton Boston and joined several hundred demonstrators circling in front of the hotel. Soon one of the organizers came to escort me to the microphone, which was set up near the hotel entrance. I looked around. “Where are the other speakers?” I asked. He looked puzzled. “There are no other speakers.”

And so I held forth to the crowd assembled in front of the hotel, talking about the war and why the United States did not belong in Vietnam. As I spoke, limousines drew up, one by one, and tuxedoed guests, including Dean Rusk, the trustees, and others, stepped out, stopped for a moment to take in the scene, and went into the hotel.

A few days later I received a letter from the Office of the President. As I opened it, I thought of that other letter of 1963 from the office of another president. But this one said, “Dear Professor Zinn, I am happy to inform you that you have been awarded tenure by a meeting of the Board of Trustees on the afternoon of …” So the trustees had voted me tenure in the afternoon, then arrived in the evening for the Founders Day dinner to find their newly tenured faculty member denouncing their honored guest.

Without that lucky winning of tenure, John Silber’s arrival as president of Boston University would have ended my job. He had been a professor of philosophy and a dean at the University of Texas. He was fast talking and fast thinking and two philosophers on the B.U. presidential search committee had recommended him on the basis of what I believe is a common fallacy among intellectuals, that to say someone is “bright,” even “brilliant,” as was said of Silber, is equivalent to saying someone is good.

Silber and I clashed almost immediately. What seemed to infuriate him was that I dared to criticize him publicly and unsparingly. (Yes, as the president of Spelman had said, I was insubordinate.)

One of the first things President Silber did upon taking office was to invite the U.S. Marines to the university to recruit students for the Marine Corps. This was in the spring of 1972, with the war in Vietnam still going on. Antiwar students organized a demonstration, sitting on the steps of the building where the recruiters were ensconced. It was nonviolent, but obstructive, no doubt, making it not impossible but difficult for students to meet with the recruiter.

I was not in that demonstration, but home in bed with a bad viral infection. Someone phoned me with the news: Silber had called the police, and was there on the scene with a bullhorn, acting like a general in a military operation as the police moved in, using police dogs and clubs, to arrest the demonstrators.

The next day, the official administration newspaper carried the headline “Disruptive Students Must Be Taught Respect for Law, Says Dr. Silber.”

Still in bed, I wrote an article about the incident for a Boston newspaper, and it was widely reprinted on campus. I wanted to engage Silber on the history of the U.S. Marines, the philosophy of civil disobedience, and the concept of an “open university,” a principle he claimed he was upholding by inviting the Marines to recruit.

“It is true,” I wrote, “that one crucial function of the schools is training people to take the jobs that society has to offer.… But the much more important function of organized education is to teach the new generation that rule without which the leaders could not possibly carry on wars, ravage the country’s wealth, keep down rebels and dissenters—the rule of obedience to legal authority. And no one can do that more skillfully, more convincingly than the professional intellectual. A philosopher turned university president is best of all. If his arguments don’t work on the students—who sometimes prefer to look at the world around them than to read Kant—then he can call in the police, and after that momentary interruption (the billy club serving as exclamation point to the rational argument) the discussion can continue, in a more subdued atmosphere.”

In what seemed to me a peculiar interpretation, Silber pointed to the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., in arguing that students should give themselves up to arrest for what they had done. This led me to write: “How odd that a man whose own behavior that day more closely resembled that of Birmingham’s Bull Connor—replete with police dogs, hidden photographers, and club-wielding police—should invoke the name of Martin Luther King, who would have been there on the steps with the students.”

Silber declared his educational philosophy in 1976 on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He wrote: “As Jefferson recognized, there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent.… Democracy freed from a counterfeit and ultimately destructive egalitarianism provides a society in which the wisest, the best, and the most dedicated assume positions of leadership.… As long as intelligence is better than stupidity, knowledge than ignorance, and virtue than vice, no university can be run except on an elitist basis.” On another occasion, Silber said, “The more democratic a university is, the lousier it is.”

His supreme confidence in his own intelligence, knowledge, and virtue led him to be arrogant with faculty, contemptuous of students, and to behave more and more like a petty dictator in running the university.

When his five-year contract expired in 1976, there was a campuswide movement involving students, faculty, and deans, urging that he not be kept on. The faculty voted overwhelmingly that he should not be rehired, and fifteen of the sixteen deans concurred.

The decision, however, rested with the Board of Trustees. When a committee of the trustees recommended that his contract should not be renewed, Silber, ever the fighter, insisted on appearing before the board, and persuaded them to keep him on. After that close call, he set about to ensure his position. The deans who had called for his departure did not stay long. One by one they disappeared. A new chairman of the Board of Trustees took over—Arthur Metcalf, an industrialist and militarist (he wrote a column for a rightwing journal on military strategy) and a close friend of Silber’s. (Soon after, Silber acquired stock in Metcalf’s corporation, which he later sold for over a million dollars.)

After twenty years in the presidency, Silber pointed to how much money he had added to the university’s endowment, and this was true, although it was also true that he had added a comparable amount to the university’s debt. He was proud of the fact that he brought some distinguished people to the faculty. Indeed he did, but it was also a fact that many fine teachers left Boston University because they could not stand the atmosphere created by his administration.

His claim was that he had turned a mediocre institution into a“world-class university.” To many of us, this was a bit like Mussolini trampling on civil liberties while boasting that he had made Italy into an important power, had brought order, had made the trains run on time.

Shortly after the trustees renewed his contract in 1976, Silber established censorship of student publications, requiring them to have faculty advisers who would have approval over what was printed. I was an adviser to one student newspaper, The Exposure, whose bold criticism of the administration undoubtedly led to the censorship policy. When I refused to act as censor the paper was denied funds to operate, and when student organizations voted to allocate money for it, the administration blocked the funding.

In 1978, the radical attorney William Kunstler was invited to speak at the B.U. Law School. In the course of his remarks he made a joking and unflattering remark about President Silber. The executive director of the Boston University radio station, who had planned to air the speech, was ordered to delete the remark from the tape. He refused, and, as he told me later, an administration official took him outside the building and presented him with a choice: resign or be fired. He resigned.

The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in its report of 1979, said it had “never, in memory, received such a large and sustained volume of complaints about a single … institution” as about Boston University, and that its investigation had led it to believe “that B.U. has violated fundamental principles of civil liberties and academic freedom.”

Faculty members who did not have tenure became fearful of voicing criticism of the president. Those who spoke out, even if faculty committees on four different levels voted for them, faced the loss of their jobs. Silber had absolute power to overrule all faculty decisions on tenure, and used it.

Boston University, under Silber, became notorious throughout academia. University police, sometimes overtly, sometimes surreptitiously, took photos of students and faculty who participated in demonstrations. I remember one such picket line, with faculty and students walking peacefully outside the building where the trustees were meeting, carrying signs against apartheid in South Africa. A university security guard, with a dean standing nearby, put his camera right up to our faces, one by one, to take his photos.

A student who distributed leaflets in the hall outside another trustees’ meeting was suspended for a semester. Another student, who distributed leaflets outside the stadium where a commencement was taking place, was ordered to leave or be arrested.

A graduating honors student about to go to law school, Maureen Judge, being interviewed for a university brochure, was asked to name “my two most inspiring and enjoyable professors.” She named me as one of them, and then was told the interview would not be published unless she deleted my name. She refused.

One day a student named Yosef Abramowitz, active in Zionist affairs and also in the campaign to get B.U. to divest itself of its South African stocks, came to my office to tell me a disturbing story. He had hung a sign from his dormitory window with one word on it: “Divest.” University workers were ordered to remove the sign. Twice more he put it up, twice more it was removed. He received a letter from the administration: he would be evicted from his room if he insisted on replacing the sign.

From my office, we called the Civil Liberties Union. They contacted a young lawyer in the area to ask if he would handle the case—it was an opportunity to test a new Massachusetts law on civil rights. The lawyer responded, “I’ll be happy to take the case. I just graduated from the B.U. Law School.”

I went to court to listen. The university’s lawyer insisted that the word “divest” was not the problem. The issue was an aesthetic one: the sign, he said, disturbed the beauty of the neighborhood. To anyone who knew that neighborhood, or the architecture of Boston University, this was a hilarious statement.

Abramowitz’s lawyer put on the witness stand student after student who testified about the things they had hung from their windows (for one, a yellow rubber chicken) without any complaint from the administration.

The judge made his decision: B.U. must stop interfering with Abramowitz’s right of free speech.

As word spread about the strange events at Boston University, journalists trying to uncover what was going on reported again and again that faculty members were afraid to go on public record as being critical of the administration. A reporter for the New York Times Magazine wrote, “Most of the people—B.U. students and faculty, former faculty, former trustees—interviewed for this article, even those with nothing critical to say, wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.”

Meanwhile, Silber was raising his own salary in huge jumps, so that soon, at $275,000 a year, he made more than the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or M.I.T. Furthermore, he was getting special deals from the Board of Trustees: real estate sold to him at below the market price for his use as rental property, loans at little or no interest, a generous bonus package on top of his salary. As university president he had become a millionaire, not a customary thing in the academic world.

When questioned about the money spent to lavishly furnish his rent-free house, Silber would respond, “Do you want your president to live in a pup tent on the Charles River?”

His employees, on the other hand, had difficulty getting raises in their wages or their benefits. In self-defense they organized into unions: the faculty, the secretaries and staff, the librarians. And in 1979, with various grievances not met, all of these groups, at different times, went out on strike. For the faculty, the provocation was the university reneging on a contract at first agreed to by its negotiating committee.

I was one of the co-chairs of the strike committee of the faculty union (officially called, in the cautious language of college professors, the Postponement Committee). My job was to organize the picket lines at the entrance to every university building, to establish a rotation system among the hundreds of picketers. The faculty was admirable in its tenacity, showing up day after day, from early morning to evening, to walk the picket lines.

Some students complained about the canceled classes, but many came to our support. The normal functioning of the university became impossible. The College of Liberal Arts and a number of other schools were virtually closed down.

After nine days of picketing, endless meetings, strategy sessions, the university gave in. But Silber hated to acknowledge defeat. In a telegram sent to the trustees just before the settlement, he urged that in no way should it be conceded that it was the strike which brought about the university’s acceptance of the contract with the union.

In the meantime, however, the secretaries had gone out on strike, too, and we all walked the picket lines together, a rare event in the academic world. Some of us in the faculty union tried to get our colleagues to refuse to go back to work until the administration agreed to a contract with the secretaries, but we failed to persuade. Our contract was signed, and teachers returned to their classes, with the secretaries still walking the picket line.

A number of us refused to cross those picket lines and held our classes out of doors. I met my class of about two hundred students on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the main Boston thoroughfares, in front of the building where we normally met. I rented a loudspeaker system and explained to the class why we were not going inside. We had a lively discussion about the reasons for the strike and how it connected with the subject of our course, “Law and Justice in America.”

In the midst of our sidewalk class, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts showed up and handed me a circular from the administration: faculty were expected to meet their classes in their regular places or be considered in violation of their contracts.

A few days later, five faculty who had refused to cross the picket lines were charged with violation of the union contract, which prohibited “sympathy strikes.” The article under which we were charged contained a provision which could lead to our being fired, though we all had tenure. In addition to me, there was my friend and colleague in the political science department, Murray Levin, one of the most popular lecturers in the university; Fritz Ringer, a distinguished historian; Andrew Dibner, a much-respected member of the psychology department; and Caryl Rivers, a nationally known columnist and novelist who taught journalism.

Ours soon became “the case of the B.U. Five.” We had the help of the faculty union attorney and several outside lawyers. A Nobel Prize laureate at M.I.T., Dr. Salvadore Luria, organized a defense committee and circulated support petitions to faculty members all over the country. A group of academics in France sent a letter of protest to the Silber administration. The Boston Globe and other newspapers wrote editorials accusing the university of violating academic freedom.

A group of distinguished women writers—Grace Paley, Marilyn French, Marge Piercy, Denise Levertov—did readings for an overflow audience at the Arlington Street Church, to raise money for our defense.

The noise around the case must have become too much for John Silber. He backed down. The charges against us were dropped.

Faculty with tenure cannot easily be fired, but they can be punished for dissidence in other ways. When Murray Levin and I were recommended for raises by our department, Silber overturned them, year after year. One of the leaders of the union, Freda Rebelsky, an award-winning teacher and nationally known psychologist, was punished in the same way. Arnold Offner, a historian who had won an award for distinguished teaching, was denied a raise because a right-wing faculty member, a friend of Silber’s, objected to something he said in class about American foreign policy.

Silber vetoed raises for me again and again. But our faculty contract had a procedure for appeal to an arbitration committee. In the early 1980s, when Silber once again overruled a department recommendation, the arbitration group went over the evidence (that year, my book A People’s History of the United States was nominated for an American Book Award) and gave me my raise.

What seemed to anger Silber most was that every semester four hundred or more students would sign up for my lecture course: in the fall, “Law and Justice in America,” in the spring, “Introduction to Political Theory.” He refused to allot money for a teaching assistant, although classes with a hundred students would routinely have one or two assistants. He let it be known that I could get a teaching assistant if I limited enrollment in my classes to sixty students.

He knew that my classes discussed the most controversial social issues: freedom of expression, the race question, military intervention abroad, economic justice, socialism, capitalism, anarchism. On these issues, Silber and I had very different views. He was an admirer of the military, and apparently believed in supporting any government, whatever its record on human rights, so long as it was anti-Communist. (El Salvador’s, for instance, even while that government was collaborating with death squads and terrorism.) He was extremely intolerant of homosexuality and not very enthusiastic about heterosexuality (he instituted a rule forbidding overnight guests of the opposite sex in dorms).

Speaking to a gathering of university presidents on the West Coast, Silber talked darkly about those teachers who “poison the well of academe.” His two chief examples: Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

In the fall of 1979, after all the strikes, the faculty began circulating a petition to request the trustees to dismiss Silber. A special assembly of the university faculty was called to vote on the issue. The day before that assembly I was sitting in my office with a student when a colleague who taught in the School of Education walked in. He said that he had just come from a faculty meeting at his school, where Silber had appealed to the faculty to vote down the petition for his removal. The backers of this petition, Silber said, were longtime troublemakers. Even before he’d became president, he said, Howard Zinn had tried to set fire to the president’s office.

“You’re not serious,” I said.

“Oh, yes. He accused you of arson. We all sat there, bewildered. Do you have any idea what he was talking about?”


The student sitting in the office was interested. She was a graduate student in journalism. She said she would look into this.

Next morning the Boston Globe carried a story, prominently displayed, with photos of both Silber and me, and a headline: “Silber Accuses Zinn of Arson.” The byline was that of the student who had been in my office. She verified that Silber had made such a statement to the School of Education, but also wrote that she had checked with the fire department. Indeed, there once had been a fire reported in the president’s office, before Silber’s time, but there was never any indication of whether it was accidental or deliberate and no one had ever been accused.

I began to get phone calls from lawyer friends. This is, they said, a textbook case of defamation, of libel. A terrific opportunity to sue Silber for all he’s worth (now a fortune). I wouldn’t hear of it. I was not going to get involved in a lawsuit—whatever the prize—that would then dominate my life for years.

That afternoon the faculty assembled for its special meeting. Silber presided. Since the main business was the petition calling for his removal, some thought he would turn the chair over to someone else. But Silber was not one to do that. It was said of Theodore Roosevelt that he had such an ego he wanted to preside over his own funeral; Silber was going to take charge of this meeting.

The hall filled and filled—clearly the largest turnout of faculty anyone could remember. Then Silber took the microphone: “Before the meeting officially begins, I want to apologize to Professor Howard Zinn.” There was a buzz of astonishment—no one could imagine Silber ever apologizing to anyone for anything. What I suspected was that his lawyer friends had advised him to do so to minimize what might be a costly and losing lawsuit for defamation of character.

The hall became very quiet as Silber gave his explanation. When he became president he’d been shown slides of the history of activism at B.U. One of them showed an occupation of the president’s office, in protest against police brutality on campus, and it showed me as part of the sit-in. Another slide showed a fire at the president’s office. They were two separate events, but, Silber explained, he “conflated the two incidents.”

The meeting began. Silber’s supporters, mostly administrators and department heads, spoke to oppose the resolution. In defense of Silber, one department head rose to quote an American president speaking of a Caribbean dictator: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch. But he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”

Silber’s faculty opponents rose to give evidence of financial mismanagement, of how Silber had preempted all important decisions, disregarded faculty opinion, inhibited freedom of expression, abused the rights of employees, and created conditions which blighted teaching and learning.

The vote was taken. It was 457–215 in favor of calling on the trustees to oust Silber. By now, Silber and Metcalf had tight control of the board. The trustees rejected the faculty resolution.

Not long after this, a woman in the English department named Julia Prewitt Brown came up for tenure. She was hopeful; she had written a much-praised book on novelist Jane Austen. However, she also had picketed in front of Silber’s office during the strike. Her department voted for her unanimously. Two more faculty committees voted for her unanimously. When Silber’s provost then turned her down for tenure, an outside committee of three scholars was called in. They voted in her favor. That added up to forty-two of her peers urging that she get tenure. But John Silber said no.

Julia Brown was a fighter. As she told me, at one time her father had been an amateur boxer back in St. Louis, and she’d been a fight fan from the time she was a girl. She admired fighters (Sugar Ray Leonard was one) who fought to the end, against whatever odds. She would not be bullied. She was the mother of three young children, but she would take all her money, sell her condominium in Boston, hire a lawyer, and sue Silber and B.U.

Her lawyer was Dahlia Rudavsky, also a young mother, who had been an attorney for the faculty union during and after the strike. Rudavsky drew up a double charge: political discrimination and sexual discrimination.

There was a history of Silber mistreating women faculty. Women were much less likely to get tenure than men, and women whose political views Silber disliked were especially vulnerable. Two women in the philosophy department, each exceptional in her own way, both voted tenure by their departments, were turned down by Silber, as was a woman in the sociology department who had been a strong supporter of the strike. Tenure for a woman in the economics department, a white South African who was outspoken in her disagreements with Silber about South Africa, was approved by her department, then vetoed by the president’s office.

Much of the evidence in the trial centered on the importance of Julia Brown’s book on Jane Austen. Silber expressed disdain for Jane Austen as a “lightweight” among novelists, but in the trial admitted he had not read Julia Brown’s book. He did not deny that he had called the English department “a damned matriarchy.”

The jury quickly came to a conclusion. Boston University and John Silber were guilty of sex discrimination. Julia Brown was awarded $200,000. The judge, in an extraordinary decision (courts customarily stay out of tenure disputes), ordered B.U. to grant her tenure. It had taken six years of persistence on her part, but in the end, like her hero Sugar Ray Leonard outlasting Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship, she won.

For so many of us who worked at Boston University, it was often discouraging to see how a tyrannical president could hold on to power for so long. But the administration, though it had its admirers, never won the affection of the campus community. And it never succeeded in beating down those students and faculty who were determined to speak their minds, to honor the idea that a university should provide a free and humane atmosphere for humane learning.

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