Novice dean at home in his position

Sam Black

Tom Fisher, the new dean at the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, uses bold words when he shares his plans and ideas for the school of architecture.
Leadership is telling clear and coherent stories about yourself, he said. “And it’s time to begin to tell new stories about our college.”
There is a misperception that architects are in the business of delivering buildings, Fisher said. But the story that needs to be told is, “We are in the process of delivering a service and process that solves your problems,” he added.
The function of a professional school is about much more than the training for a profession, he said.
The college of architecture should harvest the knowledge of people in the professional world, Fisher added. He said he would like to organize, research and redistribute solutions to problems to the industries’ practitioners.
“Professions depend upon access to information and the sharing of ideas,” he said.
Students should learn about values and techniques, Fisher said. “Values should be the core of a professional education, not just taught as an auxiliary.”
Fisher, who has been at the University since July, is unique among college deans at the University because he has no experience as a college administrator or a professor. Instead, Fisher developed his theories and skills as editor of the design trade magazine Progressive Architecture.
During almost 14 years at the magazine, Fisher wrote and critiqued both architecture and architecture education methods. “I’ve long lectured and been involved in academia,” he said. “I had one foot in the door all along — now I have two feet in it.”
Fisher has an undergraduate degree in architecture from Cornell University and a master’s degree in intellectual history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
He left Progressive Architecture after the 75-year-old magazine stopped publishing because of what he described as a hostile takeover by one of the other major trade magazines.
Some other ideas Fisher has implemented so far as dean are what he calls good practices. They include a first-ever staff retreat and a ground-breaking all-college retreat.
Fisher said he hopes to engage the college in a conversation about the school’s future. He didn’t want to make a bunch of changes to an already strong program, he added.
The College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is relatively new, he said, and it doesn’t have a strong sense of institutional identity.
Fisher said he wants to move all of the departments in the college into one building. Currently, some programs are off-campus and others are in different buildings. Plans to renovate the Architecture Building have been put on hold several times in the past 10 years, and finally, with the help of $9 million the legislature allocated last year, some remodeling projects have been started, he said.
“We need square footage,” Fisher said. “One of my goals is to make it into a college, not a scattering of departments.”
Fisher said he likes the University because the mission of the land-grant institution goes well with his visions for the professional school. The more cautious pace of decision-making at such a large school is also a value he appreciates. “There is a lot of discussion and a lot of talk within a University,” he said. “When we make a decision, we make sure it is right.”
Fisher said his impressions of the Twin Cities so far confirm its reputation for having a small-town atmosphere in a diverse metropolitan community.
“It is a very warm place,” Fisher said. “Well, the people are warm.”