Robert Fishman, who has a Ph.D. in history, never thought he would wind up teaching at an architecture and urban planning school. But Fishman, an internationally recognized expert in the areas of urban history and urban policy and planning, has done that and more since coming to Taubman College in 2000. In addition to his ongoing role as professor of architecture and urban and regional planning, Fishman served as interim chair of architecture in 2013 and interim dean from 2016 to 2017.
Growing up near New York City, Fishman says he was fascinated from a young age by the special energy of great cities and their power to enrich people’s lives. An influential work in Fishman’s own life, Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, is required reading in the classes he teaches. “I tell my students that there’s always a course requirement that’s not on the syllabus: They must love cities.” Noting that his career as an urbanist has followed the urban crisis in New York, Detroit, and elsewhere, he says, “Our great cities are not assured. They have to be designed and worked for.”
Fishman says that when he started writing books about the histories of planning and architecture, “I soon realized that most of my readers were in colleges of architecture and planning. My degree and teaching experience were in academic history, and although I kept thinking it would be great to move to a college of architecture and planning, I thought it would be too hard to switch tracks.”
Fishman credits the generosity of A. Alfred Taubman, HLLD ’91, with giving him the opportunity to do so. Taubman’s wish for his endowment to be used in ways that would transform the college made it possible to bring Fishman to Ann Arbor.
“I am very pleased that I was able to tell Mr. Taubman personally that I owed my job to his gift,” Fishman says.
Fishman also credits then Dean Douglas Kelbaugh with encouraging him to apply. “I’m not sure I would have taken the initiative if he hadn’t contacted me,” says Fishman.
Now Fishman is paying back the bridge he was given in his own career by giving others a bridge into academia. In 2017, Fishman documented a bequest to establish the Fishman Fellowship in Urbanism so that promising early-career practitioners and scholars can join the college he loves by teaching and researching the subject he loves. “It was striking to me how so much of the energy of the college comes from its fellows, and how the fellowship program has become a major source for our tenure-track faculty,” Fishman says. “To me, one of the fundamental issues of our future is the rebuilding of cities so they are sustainable long-term. So strengthening that part of the college by supporting new talent seemed like the best way I could give back.”
Fishman does not have a degree from U-M, and he taught at his previous institution a decade longer than he has spent at Taubman College so far, but his time in Ann Arbor has made him a dedicated Wolverine. “The great advantage of Michigan is that not only do we have a large faculty, but it’s a faculty where literally everyone is outstanding in different ways,” says Fishman, who notes that when he grapples with a research question, often all he has to do is walk a few doors down to colleagues who have done important work in that area.
“In some ways, it’s comparable to what happens in a great city where people with special skills are brought together. It’s an environment that creates the kind of possibilities for research that are amazing to me.”
Learn more about the Fishman Fellowship in Urbanism and other Taubman College fellowship opportunities.