CMU professor Ben Fischer passes away at 92

Ben Fischer, distinguished public service professor of labor studies and public policy at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, died Sunday, November 12. He was 92.

Fischer’s death marked the end of a career in which he helped change the way the steel industry treated its employees.
Before he joined the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1981, Fischer worked for United Steelworkers of America. There he served as the assistant to four union presidents and helped change the way minorities and women were treated by the major steel companies.

“There was a lot of racial and gender discrimination in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Bernie Kleiman, general counsel of the United Steelworkers, who worked with Fischer. “[Fischer] started working with this issue to break down these barriers in the late ’40s.”

By 1974, the Steel Industry Consent Decrees changed the system of seniority and led to greater mobility for those placed in disadvantageous positions in the industry.

Fischer was also well known for his contributions to the practice of collective bargaining and labor arbitrations.
In 1979, he retired from United Steelworkers after 37 years. Carnegie Mellon hired him in 1981, at which time he
started the Center for Labor Studies and began applying his decades of knowledge to the classroom.

“To take a course from Ben would be a course in labor history that would also be a course that would challenge students to think and reexamine their politics and ethics,” said Fischer’s colleague and friend Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy.

After 10 years, the Center for Labor Studies closed due to a lack of funds and support from Carnegie Mellon. However, Fischer stayed on the faculty to teach courses on a variety of labor issues, including social security, immigration, and retirement economics.

Fisher’s wife of 26 years, Sylvia Fischer, described her late husband as a hands-on professor.

“He loved his students truly, and we would have them here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she said, adding that he referred to so many students as ‘brilliant’ that “we stopped listening to him after a while.”

Though Fischer was no longer teaching courses at the Heinz School, he taught an independent study course this semester in public policy and management for students who wanted to continue working with him. He also taught for the Academy for Lifelong Learning until four days before his death.

Fischer was equally adept at relating to his students at the Academy for Lifelong Learning. His students ranged from senior citizens to college students who were 60 or 70 years his junior, said Daniel Naylor, a former undergraduate student of Fischer’s and a 2002 Carnegie Mellon graduate.

“One of the common laments [in college] is that students can’t really connect to their teachers,” Naylor said. “Ben welcomed you into his family. He was someone you could really talk to and relate to.”

Colleagues also remember Fischer as a mentor outside the classroom.

Linda Babcock, an economics professor in the Heinz School, was hired in 1988, when Fischer taught at the school.
“He took me under his wing,” Babcock said. “[He] helped me get settled into the place.”

For Naylor, Fischer served as a mentor long after graduation.

“Four years later, I still had a great relationship with him,” Naylor said. “He was a stand-up person and a mentor to so many.”