John Fischer, Former TC President, Passes Away
John H. Fischer, TC’s sixth president and also a former dean of the College, passed away in late December at the age of 99.
Fischer served as TC’s president from 1962 through 1974. A former elementary school teacher, guidance counselor and vice principal, he came to national attention through his enforcement of desegregation as the superintendent of Baltimore city schools, a post he had assumed in 1953.
In 1959, Fischer became Dean of TC. During his brief tenure
in that role, he changed the entrance level grade to the college from a B minus
to at least a B average, granting few exceptions to students who did not meet
the criteria. He also changed the academic standards in courses and papers, and
stiffened the final oral examination on doctoral projects. All of these changes
helped position Teachers College as a leader in the educational field.
One of Fischer's goals when he assumed the presidency at TC in 1962 was to give greater attention to problems in the urban education sector -- specifically to inner-city schools in New York. During his tenure, TC established the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), as well as the Institute of International Studies. Fischer also served as member and chair of the National Commission on the Education of the Disadvantaged and the National Advisory Commission on Education of Disadvantaged Children from 1965 to 1969.
Fischer also was a major supporter of TC’s work in building an education system in Afghanistan, making one and sometimes two trips to Kabul himself each year.
But history is likely to remember Fischer best as a tough-minded school superintendent who refused to back down on integration.
In an article titled “When Southern Politics Came North: The Roots of White Working-Class Conservatism in Baltimore, 1940-1964, historian Kenneth Durr describes the growing disenchantment among many of Baltimore’s working class whites during that era with the Democratic party, and the rising popularity with this group of pro-segregation politicians such as George Wallace. Noting that between 1950 and 1955 32,000 blacks moved into Baltimore while 15,000 whites left, Durr writes that when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954, “the Baltimore newspapers were not enthusiastic.”
On Maryland’s Eastern shore, school districts ignored the Court’s decision, Durr writes, “but superintendent of schools John H. Fischer made Baltimore the first major city in the nation to act.”
And in “Desegregation in Maryland since the Supreme Court Decision,” an article published in the summer 1955 issue of The Journal of Negro Education, George C. Grant, Dean of Morgan State College wrote that “On July 14, Dr. John H. Fischer, Superintendent of Schools, met with the teachers of Baltimore and in a statesmanlike address, affirmed the intent of the Board of School Commissioners to desegregate schools beginning in September 1954. Dr. Fischer advised that those who could not accept the decision of the Board of School Commissioners should tender their resignations.”
Baltimore subsequently stood down anti-integration pickets, including a few that turned violent. While the police force did its work on the front lines, Fischer’s approach was simply to make it known that all schools in the Baltimore system would be open to all students. When he learned that some parents would be keeping their students home, he ordered that all absent pupils be marked as truants. In 1955, the Baltimore school system desegregated largely without mishap, and the following year, Fischer received the Hollander Award for Contribution to Racial Relations.
As TC’s Dean and President, Fischer spoke out widely on a range of educational issues. His interests and views resonate closely with many issues of the current day. For example, in a 1962 article in Time magazine titled “Education: Standards for Noah’s Ark?”, Fischer was quoted as saying “However strongly we may believe that public education in America is still entirely a local matter, the facts will not support our faith. Nor is there any likelihood that a nation whose regional differences diminish every year can meet its educational problems by ignoring common national needs. In the same article, Fischer went on to propose the creation of an organization like the American Red Cross, without federal funds or power “to pass ammunition to local school boards” about curricula and content but not “to lay down the law.”
In a December 1965 address to the Governor’s Conference on Education in Salt Lake City, Utah, Fischer also spoke out in defense of individual creative and imagination.
“In a world increasingly preoccupied with the problems of organization, of collectivism, of mass responses to mass media, it becomes more important than ever that education serve as countervailing influence on the side of individuality,” he said. “To look upon imagination only as one of the more charming qualities of childhood would be to denigrate the clear evidence that it is essential to all creative or critical ability.”
Fischer taught at many universities during his long career, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins (where he was also a trustee of the College), Duke, the University of Chicago, Emory and the University of Maryland. He served as a consultant to what was then the U.S. Office of Education, as well as to the Department of State and the Carnegie, Ford and Kellogg Foundations, among many others. He earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University and his doctorate from Teachers College.
Published Monday, Dec. 21, 2009