Dr. James L. Fisher, whose tenure as president of what is now Towson University coincided with unparalleled physical expansion, increased student enrollment and a name change during the 1970s, died Wednesday at a son’s Crownsville home of complications from a stroke. The former Vero Beach, Florida, and Wiltondale resident was 91.
“President Fisher brought Towson University into a contemporary modern university, positioning the university for the growth we continue to achieve. He touched the lives of thousands of Tigers, and mentored many who went on to become leaders for our state,” current Towson President Kim Schatzel said in a statement announcing Dr. Fisher’s death. “His leadership was transformational, and I stand on his shoulders.”
James Lee Fisher, son of Morris Lee Fisher, a fire chief, and Vera Brant Fisher, a homemaker, was born in Decatur, Illinois, and raised there.
After graduating from Decatur High School, he enrolled at Millikin University in Decatur but was forced to drop out because of poor grades. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950 and fought in Korea.
After being discharged in 1954, he resumed his academic career, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1956 from Illinois State University. Six years later, he obtained a Ph.D. in psychology from Northwestern University.
Dr. Fisher worked for six years at Illinois State, where he was vice president before coming to what in 1969 was then Towson State College. He was 38 years old and the college’s ninth president when he succeeded Earle T. Hawkins.
He embarked on a period of expansion that left his mark on the university, which had an enrollment of 8,000 students; by the time he resigned the presidency in 1978, it had grown to 15,000 while 13 new buildings rose on its campus.
Dr. Fisher, who bore a more-than-passing resemblance to President John F. Kennedy, added five academic deans and four vice presidents. He introduced a winter academic session while expanding graduate and undergraduate academic offerings. He established the Academic Council, a legislative and advisory body made up of faculty members and students. He went on to create the Office of Institutional Development.
Another achievement of the Fisher years at Towson, and beginning in 1970, was his recruiting of more Black students, faculty and administrators.
At the time, Black people represented only 3% of the student body. There were only 12 Black faculty members out of 456 and six administrators from a field of 95.
“The Black student at Towson,” he told The Sun at the time, “often feels he is acceptable only on our terms and that we would really rather not have him on campus. Black and white can become so much more as we capitalize on the special strengths and characteristics of one another.”
In 1976, he led the way to the name of the institution being rebranded from Towson State College to Towson State University, which in 1997 became today’s Towson University.
“Often outspoken, sometimes controversial, always highly visible, Dr. Fisher was president of Towson State during 9 1/2 years when the school’s enrollment nearly doubled‚” The Sun reported when he left Towson. “He often proudly pointed out that the cost per student had remained the lowest in the state under his leadership. He also had well-publicized clashes with the state’s government and higher education hierarchy.”
Dr. Fisher was savvy when dealing with state government in Annapolis. He often said that a college president had to “confront, massage, manipulate and negotiate” for his school, reported The Sun, which referred to him as a “master educational politician.”
“I started with the assumption that a college president who thinks politics is dirty will always need a bath,” he explained to The Sun.
As a member of a commission studying higher education governance, Dr. Fisher launched a broadside into the board of trustees that oversaw Towson, as well as five other schools “replete with mismanagement,” and was the only college president in Maryland to endorse the “recommendation to abolish the board,” The Sun observed.
Upon leaving Towson, he told the newspaper his years at the university had been “fun.”
“There were other things that needed to be done, and I am immodest enough to think I could do them. But I’ll probably always feel that way,” he said, adding, “Ten years is enough — at least for Jim Fisher.”
After leaving Towson, he became president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a position he held for a decade.
Dr. Fisher liked billing himself as “the nation’s leading authority on the college president,” and embarked on teaching academic leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Illinois State, Harvard University and the University of Georgia, until fully retiring in 2016.
The Morning Sun
“Academic credentials do not necessarily portend successful leadership,” he explained in a Sun interview.
He wrote 11 books on academic leadership.
Dr. Fisher had been a trustee of 10 private colleges and universities and two prep schools, and because he was a former Marine, he was a member of the board of Marine Corps University and Marine Military Academy. Other boardships included Millikin and the Florida Institute of Technology.
For a time, he lived in a condominium at HarborView on Key Highway and devoted time to his two hobbies: tennis and sailing aboard his 70-foot yacht. Kept docked in North Palm Beach, Florida, it had four staterooms and was named the Vera Brant, after his mother, who couldn’t swim, he told The Sun.
Reflecting on his time at Towson, Dr. Fisher told The Sun in a 2008 interview: “Towson was the best decade of my life. We did a lot of things, and I didn’t know any better. The trick is to surround yourself with people better than you are.”
Services are private.
He is survived by his three sons, Curtis J. Fisher of Crownsville, Kerry Brant Fisher of Lutherville and John Benson Fisher of Florence, South Carolina; a daughter, Kathryn S. Murray of Sherwood Forest in Anne Arundel County; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Barbara Eleanor McCammon ended in divorce.