Belmont President Dr. Robert Fisher is more than three years past the official retirement age of 66, yet he’s not saying if or when he plans to leave the university.
“I will someday say ‘OK, that’s it.’ But I sure won’t be talking about that anytime in advance,” Fisher said. “I certainly won’t be here as long in the future as I have been in the past, although that would be a record.”
Fisher has served as the head of Belmont for the last 18 years. Under his leadership, the school has seen major growth — in enrollment, faculty, endowment, majors and, most visibly, in numerous state-of-the-art buildings around campus.
Fisher at his inauguration in 2000 (Belmont Office of Communications)
“All the growth — in student population, programs, buildings, facilities, top level faculty — every aspect of what we now see as Belmont was brought about by Dr. Fisher’s leadership,” said Chairman of Belmont’s Board of Trust Marty Dickens.
When Fisher started at Belmont, the university consisted of about 2,900 students. Today, there are more than 8,300.
“You can be a great liberal arts college at 3,000 students,” Fisher said. “But if you’re going to add nursing and physical therapy and occupational therapy, and if you’re going to have a business school and music — which is truly a profession — commercial music and music business, those are all professional programs. If you’re going to have those, I don’t think you can provide the kind of high quality experience you need for students. The scale is not right.”
Without Fisher’s focus on growth, many of Belmont’s current students wouldn’t be here, said Student Government Association President Gavin Mummert.
“I’m not going to say Dr. Fisher’s perfect, but Dr. Fisher has done incredible things for the university and I simply wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his leadership,” Mummert said. “He’s put Belmont on the map across the entire country, and now it’s even going international.”
But the president’s drive for growth has not always won him favor, Fisher said.
Students have complained that Belmont is getting too big. Residents have complained as the 0neighborhood has changed.
Fisher, however, remains confident that Belmont’s growth has mostly been for the better.
“I believe that 90 percent of what we’ve done has improved in quality for the students. The quality of the students’ experience here has gone up,” he said.
That quality improvement is largely because of Fisher’s ability to think outside the box in terms of his management strategy, said Provost Dr. Thomas Burns.
Many universities try to raise 50 percent or more of the funding for new buildings before starting construction, but Fisher does things a little differently, Burns said.
“We’ve been able to be much more aggressive, to build things when we need them so that students have access to the facilities sooner, and that’s extraordinary. I think that’s been a key to the success of Belmont. It’s not just growing the enrollment, it’s providing the facilities for students.”
Yet, Fisher doesn’t want Belmont to keep growing indefinitely. He thinks about it all in terms of economics, which was his speciality before coming to Belmont.
“The course I thought I would never use was microeconomics. But it’s just stuck in my head, about things like average cost and marginal cost and scale and efficiencies and how much more you can do for people at certain points on the curve,” Fisher said.
Eventually there’s a point where the curve starts to decrease, and he thinks Belmont may be approaching that point, he said.
“I’m wondering where the curve inflects downward as far as quality improvements,” he said. “Days before I walked onto this campus, I had the answer. It’s grow, grow, grow, grow, grow,” he said.
“But I don’t know. It’s time to really think hard about that.”
Fisher is still focused on reaching the university’s 2020 strategic goal of 8,888 students enrolled, he said.
But beyond that, he’s not so sure.
“The fundamental question is what’s next. I’ve got some ideas, I just don’t want to put them out there. At the right time I will, but what I loved about the last process was I was able to hold onto a lot of my ideas until I saw what others were thinking,” he said.
This ability to listen to other people’s ideas has been crucial to the university’s success, said Provost Dr. Thomas Burns.
For this reason, the president’s legacy won’t just lie in the buildings he created and the enrollment he increased, but also in the way he set Belmont up to succeed long after he leaves.
“He’s created an extremely strong university that will be able to remain that way. The success of the university at this point doesn’t depend on Dr. Fisher or a charismatic leadership,” Burns said. “He’s built a strong financial base, he’s built a strong facilities base, he’s built a strong national and international draw — which allows the institution to really have a strong future independent of who the president is.”
And though Fisher isn’t ready to talk about retirement yet, he admits he’s starting to look ahead to the vision another leader might bring to Belmont.
“I can tell you that for the first time, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next person can do. That’s my goal — to leave it so somebody can just take off.”
For Dickens, Belmont’s next president should first and foremost be someone who “will believe in the mission and ministry of Belmont,” he said.
But any candidates for the job will have a high standard to live up to.
“If I could snap my fingers, I’d bring a clone of Dr. Fisher,” he said.