His daughter Ruth Silber-Belmonte confirmed the death. Dr. Silber had been treated for kidney disease.
A philosopher by training but a fighter by instinct, Dr. Silber believed in old-fashioned hard work and academic excellence. He arrived in Boston when protests against every value he cherished were sweeping campuses across the country. He waded in, and from 1971 to 1996 ruled B.U. with a tigerish ferocity that delighted admirers and enraged critics. There were plenty of both.
He took a leave in 1990 to be the Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts. While he lost narrowly to the Republican, William F. Weld, there was talk of a presidential race. But he returned to academic life, was the university chancellor from 1996 to 2003, and retired as president emeritus with a multimillion-dollar package that touched off one more controversy in a career filled with them.
A short, tough Texan born with a withered right arm into a family of strict Presbyterians who never told him of his father's Jewish forebears or of an aunt gassed at Auschwitz, Dr. Silber had fought battles all his life: against taunting bullies as a boy, academic rivals as a University of Texas professor and restive students, professors and alumni at Boston University.
In a struggle often played out in the national news media, Dr. Silber survived sit-ins, street protests, strikes, mass resignations, death threats, a suspicious fire that destroyed his home, a Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, federal and state investigations touching on his financial dealings, and critics who called him a tyrant and worse.
But he built B.U. into a world-class research center and one of the nation's largest private universities, with a faculty boasting Nobel laureates like Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow and Derek Walcott and distinguished economists, historians and physicists.
He raised endowments to $422 million from $18 million and research grants to $180 million from $15 million, and balanced the budget every year. He raised tuition to Ivy League levels and tightened admission standards, but enrollments nevertheless climbed to 30,000 from 20,000. He also financed $700 million in new construction and tripled the university's property holdings.
In 1989, in one of many innovations, the university took over the public school system of Chelsea, Mass., a suburb of 28,000 northeast of Boston with many minority students from poor families. The partnership with the schools lasted through June 2008.
Dr. Silber was perennially the nation's highest-paid university president, with salaries that topped $800,000, twice that of Harvard's president, and he received even more as chancellor and in retirement. In 2005, two years after he resigned, he collected $6.1 million, a record severance package from a university, including deferred compensation and a lifetime home in Brookline. There was an outcry from educational councils, but Dr. Silber and the university he rescued insisted it was justified.
John Robert Silber was born on Aug. 15, 1926, in San Antonio. His father, Paul, was a German-immigrant architect whose work dried up in the Depression. His mother, the former Jewell Joslin, a teacher, supported the family. It was a cultured household, fluent in German, with Bible verses memorized, chores performed, schoolwork mastered. John learned to use his right arm, which ended in a stump below the elbow, as a weapon against bullies.
He graduated with high honors in philosophy from Trinity University in San Antonio in 1947, and married his college debating partner, Kathryn Underwood. They had two sons and six daughters. Mrs. Silber died in 2005. Their son David died of AIDS in 1994.
Besides Ms. Silber-Belmonte, Dr. Silber is survived by his daughters Rachel Devlin, Martha Hathaway, Judith Ballan, Alexandra Silber and Caroline Lavender; another son, Charles Hiett; a brother, Paul; 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
After graduating from Trinity, Dr. Silber considered the ministry and attended Yale Divinity School for a year, then studied law at the University of Texas at Austin. But, resuming his undergraduate major, he settled on philosophy and earned a master's degree from Yale in 1952. He taught philosophy there for several years while working on the doctorate he received in 1956.
In 1957, he returned to Texas as an assistant professor of philosophy. He was an exacting, charismatic teacher who supported racial integration and Head Start preschool programs while opposing capital punishment. On a Fulbright scholarship, he went to Germany in 1959 and taught a year at Bonn University. There, he learned of his father's heritage and his aunt's fate at Auschwitz.
Back at Austin, he became a full professor and department chairman in 1962, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1967. In three years he replaced 22 department heads. But by 1970, his liberal politics and executive aspirations had brought him into conflict with the chairman of the Board of Regents, Frank C. Erwin Jr. Dr. Silber was dismissed as dean and began looking for a new job.
The presidency of Boston University was vacant, but a bleak prospect. The university, founded as a Methodist seminary in 1839, had always been open to both sexes and all races and religions. Graduates included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But falling enrollments and growing deficits had reduced it to mediocrity in the shadow of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology across the Charles River.
In his interview, Dr. Silber shocked the search committee. He called the campus ugly, bemoaned a faculty laden with "deadwood" and said the university might be dying. The committee was appalled, but enthralled by his ideas. He was hired and soon plunged into conflicts.
He called the police to break up protests against military recruiters on campus. He froze salaries, cut budgets and refused to negotiate with professors, who eventually organized a union. There were petitions for his removal and strikes by professors, clerks and librarians. A Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union lawsuit claimed he had threatened to fire opponents. Hundreds quit. But his changes proceeded, backed by trustees and many alumni.
In 1992, a state investigation of university contracts with companies tied to trustees found that Dr. Silber had received a $386,700 bonus for helping to sell Seradyn Inc., a university biotech company. He returned the bonus and was cleared of wrongdoing.
An authority on the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Dr. Silber lectured widely and became an advocate for traditional and early childhood education. He was an occasional White House guest, and President Ronald Reagan named him in 1983 to a commission that reviewed United States policies on Central America. The elder President George Bush spoke at a B.U. commencement.
Dr. Silber's 1989 book, "Straight Shooting: What's Wrong With America and How to Fix It," was a manifesto for his race for governor, attacking Communism, sexual promiscuity and other targets. After his defeat, he was named chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education by Governor Weld, a post he held until 1999. In 2007 he wrote "Architecture of the Absurd," a scathing critique of that profession.
In his twilight as chancellor, the word on campus was that Dr. Silber had mellowed. But he railed against "love nests" when students asked to have overnight guests in dorm rooms, and he closed a student club that tried to bring gay and straight students together. There were more protests.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: September 27, 2012 An earlier version of this obituary misstated the disease that Dr. Silber had been treated for. It was kidney disease, not liver disease. It also misstated the year Boston University was founded as a seminary. It was 1839, not 1838. And it referred incorrectly to President Ronald Reagan. He did not address a B.U. commencement.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 27, 2012
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the disease that Dr. Silber had been treated for. It was kidney disease, not liver disease. It also misstated the year Boston University was founded as a seminary. It was 1839, not 1838. And it referred incorrectly to President Ronald Reagan. He did not address a B.U. commencement.