Jon Westling, R.I.P.

Jon Westling, a former president of Boston University (1996-2002), died on January 15. He was 77. What follows is part tribute and part reminiscence. 

Westling was born in Yakima, Washington, the only child of Lutheran missionaries to the Yakima Indian tribe. He was raised to pursue the ministry himself, but as a student at Reed College, he decided on a different path. 

In 1963, he was arrested in southern Virginia for his part in a civil rights demonstration against racial segregation laws and spent several days in jail. He was elected a Rhodes Scholar in 1964 and attended St. John’s College, Oxford, where he pursued a doctorate in medieval history under the distinguished scholar K. B. McFarlane. McFarlane died before Westling finished his degree. Westling then returned to the United States and began his graduate studies over again at UCLA under the supervision of another distinguished scholar, Eleanor Searle. 

Along the way, he held teaching positions at Centre College in Kentucky, Reed College, the University of California, Irvine, and UCLA. In 1974, he accepted a temporary appointment at Boston University to work on a project to produce films for the American bicentennial. That project never materialized but John Silber, then the recently appointed university president, took notice of the 32-year-old and drew him into his administration. It was a fateful moment. He became Silber’s trusted aide and in 1984 Silber appointed Westling as BU’s provost. 

Extraordinary Patience

Any account of Westling’s career has to be placed squarely in the context of Silber’s extraordinary and extraordinarily unorthodox years as leader of Boston University. Silber, who had been the dean at the University of Texas, Austin, was appointed BU’s president in 1971. He had earned a reputation in Texas as a liberal firebrand, but once at BU, Silber revealed that he was also a fierce proponent of high academic standards and a tough-minded opponent of lowering those standards to accommodate ideologies of any sort. 

Battles with members of the faculty and deans ensued, and the Silber administration emerged as the most conspicuous example in American higher education of a university president refusing to accommodate anti-war protesters and other protest-minded movements. Silber put high intellectual standards at the center of everything. And he was able to draw to BU outstanding scholars such as William Arrowsmith in classics and Roger Shattuck in French literature. 

Silber found in Westling a man of exceptional intellectual talent who was also an expert administrative tactician. Where Silber was impetuous and irascible, Westling was deliberative and cool-headed. Westling also had a capacious memory, filled not just with history but also with poetry and literature, and he could write with precision, subtlety, and grace. He was a skilled Latinist, and a remarkable public speaker, with a rich baritone, equally adept at ex tempore speaking and bringing a prepared text to life. He knew how to listen carefully to what others said without giving away his own thoughts, and he had immense reserves of patience. Westling’s patience sometimes tried Silber’s. Westling willingly took on a huge workload, but this meant he also had a ponderous backlog. 

Westling hired me as his assistant in 1987. I had, fortunately, already completed my Ph.D. because I was suddenly assigned with a mountain of demands. In those days, before the rise of email, almost all office business was conducted by paper correspondence, and even matters that could have been handled by conversation were quickly transformed into written records. Every day, Westling and I would sit for hours going through a stack several inches thick of new mail. He soon expected me to know how to handle most things, and by the end of the day, I would return with letters and memoranda for him to sign. If I got something wrong in substance or, God forbid, I had drafted a stylistically defective sentence, he drew a line through the page and handed it back without comment. 

Some projects were ongoing. Silber and Westling took seriously the role of central administration to evaluate every candidate for appointment, tenure, or promotion on their merits. There was no rubber-stamping of recommendations from department chairs, deans, or faculty committees. The outcomes were often the same, but everyone knew that each and every appointment would be scrutinized. 

As years went on, I won promotions and also received tenure in the anthropology department where I taught part-time. I remained at Westling’s side for 15 years.

Succeeding Silber

When Silber ran for governor of Massachusetts as the Democratic nominee in 1990, Westling served as president ad interim. After losing that race, Silber returned to BU, but decided to retire as president in 1996, at which point Westling was selected as his successor. The idea was to preserve Silber’s legacy with a less tempestuous form of governance. 

But Silber engineered a difficult situation. He had himself appointed “chancellor,” a position without a defined role, and he put in place as provost an ambitious man who deeply disliked Westling. Between these two bookends, Westling’s scope was limited, but he accepted it without complaint and indicated privately that he would wait for the situation to resolve itself. It didn’t.

Instead, 9/11 happened. Twenty-eight BU alumni were killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as family members and a coach. Westling provided steady leadership during the trauma and gave a moving memorial to the victims at the 2002 commencement service where he invoked the history of the United States after the end of the Revolutionary War when many expected the new nation to collapse. He called on the graduates to “preserve your freedom and the democratic institutions that make freedom possible.” It might have been his finest moment. But 9/11 had stirred something else in Silber, who was impatient to return to active duty. He asked Westling to step aside.

One day in early July 2002 Westling stepped into my office—a rarity—and told me he was going to resign the following day. He gave no explanation, but that’s exactly what he did. He was 60. Silber resumed running the university as chancellor but created such havoc that the board of trustees soon put him out to pasture. Westling took up his new appointment as a professor of history—picking up where he had left off 28 years earlier. He did so without ever completing his dissertation.  

In all those years of provosting, Westling had served Silber both as the man who could translate Silber’s academic vision into practical reality but also as the person who could temper Silber’s outbursts and provocative remarks—known in the local press as “Silber shockers.” Behind Silber’s flamboyant language, there was always a sensible point, and Westling would rescue it. This earned Westling little thanks from the faculty activists who sought to rid themselves of Silber with the avidity of Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional Democrats going after President Trump. Westling stood in the way of such defenestration, so he too was targeted. 

When Westling in a private letter criticized Nelson Mandela for not restraining Winnie Mandela’s campaign of murder against suspected enemies of the ANC, the letter’s recipient promptly gave it to the Boston Globe, which ran it on the front page above the day’s headline. Angry protests broke out on campus, it being a time when no word of criticism of Mandela or the ANC could be heard without evoking immediate outrage. Westling held a public meeting with the student leaders of the protest and intrepidly held to his position—a call for peaceful transition to democratic government in South Africa. The protest died away.

Westling endured several such gotcha episodes and also faced down several well-orchestrated campaigns to advance the appeals of faculty members who had lost their appointments or failed to win tenure. These were sometimes sad affairs. Scholars who invested many years in building their careers and came close to grabbing the brass ring of tenure only to miss it in the end could be embittered by the outcome. The hard cases were those whose records presented divided committee votes, yes-but reservations, mixed teaching evaluations, and faint praise from outside reviewers. The temptation was always to give the candidate a break, and it was the provost’s job to say no, that the university was not going to build academic excellence by compromising on every close case in favor of “good enough.” 

A Gift for Friendship

Westling had the temperament to make such decisions and to abide by them despite the recriminations that were sure to follow. It earned him enduring enmity in some quarters, and one long campaign by the Faculty Council to discredit him. He answered the Faculty Council’s charges succinctly and continued without hesitation his usual work.

This might suggest a person aloof from the world, but that wasn’t so. Westling had a gift for friendship and a generous spirit. In the company of his friends he was gregarious and laughed easily. But his circuit of friends among the faculty was naturally limited to those who were beyond the push-and-pull of campus politics. He especially enjoyed the company of poets and literary scholars. He was also an avid motorcyclist and enjoyed long forays with his non-academic friends on twisty roads in the Green Mountains. 

BU in those days had a Wild West side. Silber was forever making deals to expand the campus, squeezed like a thin snake between the Charles River and the Massachusetts turnpike, and overshadowed at least figuratively by Harvard and MIT across the river. Without much of an endowment, the question was how to vault BU into a position of academic prominence on a fiscal shoestring. The answers involved currying political favor from the city and state government, aggressively investing, and running up the tuition as high as the market would bear. As Silber focused on these matters, Westling focused on building the faculty. One of Westling’s high water marks was convincing Saul Bellow to leave the University of Chicago to come to BU.  

I count it a privilege to have been at Westling’s side during most of this time. I learned much of what I know about higher education during my 15 year apprenticeship with Westling, including serving as the president’s chief of staff. But all this work ended abruptly that day in 2002 when he announced he was quitting. I was angry for a time because it seemed so senseless. I knew that Silber’s return would mean letting the roller coaster run without brakes. And my first duty was to say goodbye to loyal members of the staff. The provost relieved me of my administrative responsibilities the day after Westling resigned and I was sent back to the anthropology department. 

It wasn’t a hard fate, but it was cheerless. Westling moved back to teaching as though nothing had happened. I stayed near him for three more years but we had little to talk about, and I eventually left to become provost of another college. We stayed in touch only minimally. The last time I saw him was at Silber’s memorial service in 2012. 

Opting for “Inner Retirement”

Westling remains for me a mystery. I think I knew him better than most, but I couldn’t fathom his self-erasure. A man of remarkable talents and among the best writers I have ever met, he steadfastly refused to publish essays or to write books. He would write for others in fluent and often beautiful prose, but asked to write in his own voice, he would say the world already had enough essays and books. He would not add to the surplus. Few other capable writers have taken such a vow of chastity. 

Among his favorite sayings was the Latin tag, An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur? (“Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”) The line is from the 17th-century Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna. It invites a rueful reflection on the world and is as up-to-date as ever. It also leads to world-weary resignation, and it may be that explains the last 18 years of Westling’s life. 

For my part, I took Oxenstierna’s words as an admonition, not to accept the wisdom-impoverished world as it is, but to fight back, and to do so with as much of the intelligence and steadfastness of Jon Westling as I could bring. 

I spent a few minutes looking at Westling’s Rate-My-Professors’ evaluations, and that source, such as it is, suggests that in his final years, he failed to impress his BU students, many of whom found him “boring,” inattentive to student work, and an easy grader. The irony is not lost on me that the once-feared scourge of academic mediocrity settled into a path of least resistance. But I should add that Westling’s assistant who sat in on his last 10 months of Zoom classes reported that his students resoundingly thanked him at the end of the semester, and having been sending notes that say such things as, “He was such a patient and thoughtful professor,” and “I am so thankful that I was able to learn from such an intelligent man.”

I suppose he saw himself giving back to the world what the world really wanted. But in truth, he was the best teacher I ever had, and I know others who likewise benefited from his close attention, gentle criticism, and wry humor. Yet one who decided, at one strange point, to leave mocking Ambition, disdainful Grandeur, and power’s pomp and to opt instead for an inner retirement, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. I know that line from Gray’s elegy would have irritated him. He didn’t really mind madding crowds. He liked BU hockey games. He was OK with ignoble strife up to a point. But I give the last word to Gray, “No farther seek his merits to disclose.”

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