Honors College grad Robert Fisher has a new, important position on Mayor John Cooper’s staff in Nashville.
“Drinking from a firehose.” “A whirlwind.”
Those powerhouse phrases are among the ways Robert Fisher describes his first few weeks after being hired in July as senior advisor of education for Mayor John Cooper of Nashville. “It’s a sobering moment to be in a position like this because of the scale of the challenge, because of the difficulty of what people have had to experience, whether they were impacted directly by COVID, because they were sick or they lost their job or lost a family member. That weight is not lost on me.”
Fisher, who graduated in 2015 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a concentration in legal studies, is a go-between linking the mayor’s office, business, nonprofit and community groups and the school system. Its 167 schools returned to in-class teaching after Labor Day. These days, the pandemic response is interwoven with the ever-present issues of finances, test scores, teacher pay and others. In that chaotic puzzle, Fisher is trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together. And yes, he sometimes thinks, “What did I do? What did I get myself into?”
“Oh yeah, there are definitely days like that,” he laughs. “I think that’s true for any job. You know, every day you can encounter something that makes you scratch your head and think ‘Well, how do I solve this puzzle?’”
“I think that’s true for any job. You know, every day you can encounter something that makes you scratch your head and think ‘Well, how do I solve this puzzle?’”
The new job doesn’t seem to be outside the skills of Fisher, a native of Nashville who was a student in Honors College at UTC. His resume tends to make you feel like you’ve been slouching along for years. Honors College Dean Linda Frost calls Fisher “one of the most charismatic, smart, funny, committed and politically savvy people I have ever met. I love watching his career unfold, count myself greatly fortunate to have known him when and will wait as long as it takes to cast my vote for him in some election in the future,” she says.
Considering his background, politics seems a near-unavoidable destiny. At UTC, Fisher was appointed by former Gov. Bill Haslam to represent students on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. While at the University, he also had a summer internship in Washington, D.C., at the Center for American Progress, a national organization that advocates liberal solutions on social and economic issues. “I worked for their Generation Progress division and, at the time, there was just a ton of discussion around higher-education affordability and mitigating student loan debt,” Fisher says. “That also just gave me more exposure to the policy world.”
After graduating from UTC, he was awarded a Truman Scholarship, landing him another internship in Washington, D.C., this time at the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Mentors in the Honors College convinced him to later apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, which means two years studying at Oxford University in England. Of course, he won that scholarship, too, and earned master’s degrees in education and public policy at the university. “The graduate school is incredibly international, so I developed close friendships with people from … well, name a country and I may know somebody,” he says. “It expanded my sense of all the things that are important to explore in education.”
The beat goes on.
After graduate school, he took a fellowship with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab, which takes recent graduates and places them in state and local governments across the U.S. to provide technical assistance for no charge. Fisher was assigned to the Shelby County School system in Memphis, the largest system in the state with more than 100,000 students. He spent two years there for his fellowship, and when that was complete, the system hired him full-time as director for strategic operations and innovation in the system and also as adviser to the deputy superintendent for finance and operations. “They basically said, ‘Well, we really enjoyed having you here as a fellow. If you just want to stay for a little bit longer …’”
In the Memphis school system, he dealt daily with the inner workings of an urban school system, from personnel to policy.
“The experience of being on the ground doing that work offered me so much insight into how to lead, manage and support educational institutions, to be as responsive as possible to the young people they’re serving,” he says. “It was a chance to learn by doing.”
Taking his lessons from Memphis to Nashville, he understands the separate worlds of education and policy making and can communicate clearly with either side of the equation, he says. “I have experience and context and a shared understanding of what it takes to do this work,” he explains. “In policy there’s always this difficult tension between what theoretically makes sense and what happens in practice or what it takes to turn theory into action. Having done work on the ground in Memphis with principals, talking to teachers and support staff in schools, knowing the practical challenges they’re up against, I think helps inform the types of policy recommendations I offer to the mayor or the type of feedback or advice I offer to the director of schools.”
The fire in his belly is stoked by the tightrope walk between policy and reality, between listening to school workers in the trenches, translating their concerns to policy makers in government and seeing how the two can meet in the middle. “It’s nerdy, but I love it.”