Meet Robert Fisher–Rhodes Scholar 2015, UT Chattanooga

In his Rhodes Scholar interview, Robert Fisher was asked to talk about something he had seen that was strikingly beautiful.  The honors student from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga knew at once what he wanted to say:

“Looking out from Sunset Rock, on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee…Chattanooga is nestled between two mountains and a river runs through the city.  The real beauty in that view comes from knowing the place: I could see my university downtown, the river, even the highway, I could see where it goes.  I could see it all.”

Robert Fisher shaking hands with President Obama

One reason that Robert could “see it all” as such a young man is that as a Brock Scholar at UT Chattanooga he was challenged “to be an advocate, to become a civic leader, to tackle some really tough issues in the college and in the community.”  In the process, Robert evolved, as he puts it, to a point where the relationship between the university and the city of Chattanooga became his central focus.

Much of that evolution came from honors coursework and from the mentoring hand of a Brock Scholars alumnus, Demarcus Pegues, now a doctoral student at Columbia University.  Demarcus had already worked as an intern for two summers at the Institute for Responsible Citizenship in Washington, DC.  Debbie Bell, now associate director of the honors college, helped Robert connect with Demarcus, and Robert then gained acceptance into the program and interned for two summers in Washington, where he met President Obama.

“The Brock Scholars program (now a four-year honors track incorporated into the new Honors College) was really good at encouraging us to find out who we are from the time we arrived,” Robert said.  “They were so great in putting me in touch with mentors.”

The Brock Scholars Program/ Honors College is both challenging and still small enough that mentoring is readily at hand.  The College now has 140 students, but with a new dean brought on board in 2013, Dr. Linda Frost, both staff and facilities will expand sufficiently to accommodate about 600 students.   Aside from the mentoring, the College has also taken on a role that fits perfectly with Robert’s interests: leveraging the relationship of the university and the city of Chattanooga to the benefit of both.

The College sponsored the first-ever TEDx event last October–and Robert was one of two student speakers, discussing ways to overcome some of the inequities that still exist in the rapidly-growing (and quickly improving) city.

The College has also adopted a rigorous curriculum and completion requirement, effective for Fall 2015.  Brock Scholars will have to complete at least 31 honors credits; the average completion requirement for the 50 national university honors programs covered in our recent Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs was less demanding–28 credits.

The profile of the Honors College students is also competitive with those at national university honors programs.  The mean ACT for the Honors College is 30.7, virtually the same as for the 50 national universities.

Financial aid is also especially generous for Brock Scholars.  Dean Frost says that “in addition to their separately funded university merit scholarship and their Tennessee Hope scholarship, 30-35 Brock Scholars have been awarded an additional $16,000 scholarship ($4,000 per year) for some time.”  Honors housing is also available–apartment-style, air-conditioned, with convenient dining and laundry facilities.

Cost, location, and challenging classes were what brought Robert to UTC from his home in Clarksville, TN, and to the Brock Scholars Program.  “I wanted to go to a university that would prepare me for graduate school,” he says, and now he certainly has his wish.

“Robert is one of the most articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, balanced, mature, and charismatic students with whom I have ever worked,” says Dean Frost.  “It is the combination of all these talents that has attracted so many leading authorities to Robert, people such as the Chancellor of our own campus, the mayor of Chattanooga, the President of the University of Tennessee system, and even the governor of the state.

“All of these figures have recognized the amazing presence and intellect that characterize Robert and have sought out his leadership in their own initiatives as a result.  Only the fourth two-term Student Government President in UTC history, Robert is not just a natural leader; he is an informed, cautious, and brave one.  He has also been my colleague since I stepped foot in Chattanooga, sharing and developing ideas with me about the founding of our Honors College.  And well he should because it was the Brock Scholars Program, our long-standing four-year honors program, that brought Robert to our campus and that has afforded him many of the experiences that helped him develop his leadership abilities and style.”

His experiences in Washington, one result of honors mentoring, gave strong focus to Robert’s interest in public service.  Now as a senior at UTC, Robert’s passion is finding ways to strengthen what he sees as the mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the city of Chattanooga.   Robert has served as co-chair of the Downtown Task-force for Mayor Andy Berke’s Chattanooga Forward  Initiative, working to bring more energy, dynamism, and inclusiveness to downtown Chattanooga.

He is already serving on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, University of Tennessee Advocacy Council, University of Tennessee Alumni Association Board of Governors, University of Tennessee President’s Budget Advisory Group, and Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees.

The former star debater in high school says his debate coach also made a great contribution to his successes in college and in the competition for prestigious scholarships.  As Dean Frost noted, Robert is exceptionally articulate, but he has now learned along the way that in both the honors classroom and in the sometimes contentious world of local and university governance, it is not sufficient to be able to take one side or another of an issue and argue it effectively, regardless of where one’s personal values lie, because government in action is about reconciling values that can be extremely personal.

In the much more real world of city and university politics, almost everyone has strong convictions; listening, thinking and reasoning through divisive issues, respecting other views while advocating for your own–all of these skills are much more important and harder to master than simply declaiming on this or that side of a single issue.

In debate, Robert says, he could separate his inner person and beliefs from the position he was assigned to argue in competition.  Sometimes he might agree, or partially agree, or even completely disagree with the argument he had crafted and presented for the competitions.

But in honors humanities classes, Robert learned not only “how to state an answer but how to reason your way through to find the answer, and how to deal with disagreement in a civil manner.”

Honors humanities seminars were “foundational” for him and other students because of the critical learning skills they developed, but the courses also taught honors students how to “become better persons” through sharing honest insights, discovering similarities and differences, and often developing more subtle or comprehensive views.

“That’s healthy because it invites us to have a more thoughtful approach to understanding something, and to challenge ourselves, to evolve—the beauty of my experience in college has been to use all that I’ve learned–my government leadership, the academics, my personal development–the confluence of the personal, the academic, and the professional.”

If Robert’s accomplishments and interests make him sound like an ideal candidate for a Truman Scholarship, which is awarded to outstanding juniors who plan to make a contribution through public service, well…Robert did win a Truman Scholarship in 2014, and he was a Presidential Fellow in 2013-2014.  “I have four years to begin using the Truman Scholarship,” he said, “and so now I can go on to Oxford [as a Rhodes Scholar] and get a master’s degree first.”  At Oxford, he plans to study comparative social policy.  Later, he might consider a doctoral program at UCLA, Columbia, or perhaps someplace else.

And…if Robert’s accomplishments also sound like those of a young man who might seek elective office, then the answer is yes.  “I certainly have an interest in running for public office, and I like to see the changes up close as they happen–and so local government is really interesting.”

But it’s easy to see Robert leading at a higher level.  The photograph of the new Rhodes Scholar shaking hands with the President brings to mind another photo taken more than fifty years ago: the future Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy.

With continued support from both parents, who “from kindergarten on, had very high expectations for both my sister and me,” and with the lessons already learned at UTC, Robert Fisher’s vision will continue to grow during his time at Oxford.  The view from that storied university is as expansive as it gets, especially for someone who has been to Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and heard freedom ring loud and clear.

Arkansas Honors College Alum Wins Marshall Scholarship

Michael Norton, an alumnus of the honors college at the University of Arkansas, has won a Marshall Scholarship to study political science at Oxford University.  Norton also earned a Truman Scholarship in 2012, and he is going to interview for a Rhodes Scholarship in the near future.  New rules allow winners of the Marshall to go forward with other interviews.

Already in an elite group for having won a Marshall and a Truman scholarship, Norton would be in super-elite company if he were to add a Rhodes Scholarship.

UA senior Rachael Pelligrino will also interview for a Rhodes Scholarship.  In addition, she is a finalist for a Truman Scholarship.

Norton will become the 7th UA winner of a Marshall Scholarship.  The scholarships provide full funding for academic and living expenses for two years of study at any university in the United Kingdom.  Most winners choose Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, King’s College of London, the London School of Economics, or Imperial College of London.

Norton told the Arkansas Traveler that the UofA Office of Nationally Competitive Awards was central to the development of his successful application.

“The office is a great treasure of the university when it comes to these awards,” he said.  Suzanne McCray of that office is known for her mock “interviews.”

The Marshall Scholarship was established in 1953. It awards up to 40 American students each year.  For the 2013 year, 943 students applied for the scholarship and 34 were selected.

Public vs. Private Universities: Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater, Etc….

In previous posts we have written about the dominance of elite private institutions when it comes to winning prestigious national awards, such as Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Gates Cambridge, and Goldwater scholarships.  There is no question that Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Stanford, and a few other elite schools dominate some of these awards, especially Rhodes scholarships.

But what about the performance of other leading private universities, including those in the top tier of the U.S. News rankings?  We have analyzed the record of 20 private universities ranked 24 to 83 in the 2013 U.S. News rankings.  The average ranking for the 20 schools is 54.4.  We then compared their performance with that of the 50 universities whose honors programs we evaluated.  The average U.S. News ranking of the 50 public schools is 74.16, down from an average of 72.82 in 2012.

The 20 private universities are the following: Notre Dame, USC, Wake Forest, Boston College, NYU, Case Western Reserve, University of Miami, Boston University, George Washington, Tulane, Fordham, Northeastern, SMU, Syracuse, American, Baylor, Denver, Marquette, Tulsa, and TCU.

We analyzed the full history of Rhodes, Truman, Churchill, Fulbright, Goldwater, and Udall awards, and we adjusted for size of undergraduate enrollment in the case of Fulbright Student Scholarships because of the high number of those awards (about 1,500) in a given year.  We also analyzed Marshall and Gates Cambridge awards from 2001 through 2012.  One point was assigned for each award.

On a scale with 25 being the highest score, the mean score for the private universities was 7.21 and for the public universities it was 11.86.  Below are some interesting specifics:

  • The University of Tulsa had the highest overall score for the private universities, mainly due to the impressive number of Goldwater awards for undergraduates studying STEM subjects (51), which would place Tulsa at number 9 among all 70 universities in this comparison.  The leaders in Goldwater awards (among our 50 public schools) are Illinois (63), Penn State (61), Virginia (59), Wisconsin (56), Arizona State and Minnesota (54), and Michigan and Washington (52).
  • Overall, the mean score for Goldwater awards (raw numbers) was more than twice as high for the public universities as it was for the private schools (33.7 versus 16.2).
  • The mean score for Rhodes Scholarships was likewise much higher for the public schools, 12.16 versus 5.25.
  • Tulane led private schools in total Rhodes Scholarships with 18, followed by Notre Dame (14), Wake Forest (13), Case Western (10), Boston University (8), USC (8), and Denver (7).  The leading schools among the 50 we reviewed are Virginia (46), North Carolina (41), Washington (39), Wisconsin (31), Kansas and UT Austin (27), and Michigan (25).
  • The four private schools that had a total scaled score that was above the mean for the 50 public schools were Tulsa, Tulane, Notre Dame, and NYU.
  • The strongest performance for private schools was in earning Fulbright awards, probably because of the adjustment for size of undergraduate enrollment.  The mean score for the private schools was 7.21 versus 3 .07 for the public schools.
  • The mean scores for Truman Scholarships were close, with private schools averaging 8.8 and public schools 9.3.  American University and Wake Forest led private schools with 15 Truman awards each, followed by USC (14), SMU (13), Boston College and Tulane (12), and Syracuse and Tulsa (11).  The leading public schools are North Carolina (32), UT Austin (26), Michigan and Virginia (24), Wisconsin and Arizona State (17), and Arkansas and Delaware (16).
  • The public universities in this comparison score significantly higher in earning Gates Cambridge and Marshall scholarships since 2001.  However, NYU students have won an impressive 8 Gates Scholarships, the only private university in this comparison to win more than 3.   Illinois has 10, Penn State 7, Rutgers and Florida 6 apiece, and Georgia, Georgia Tech, NC State, and Michigan 5 apiece.
  • The public universities dominate Udall Scholarships, although American University has 10 and Tulsa 9.   Arizona State has 29, Arizona 21, Penn State 20, Kansas 16, and North Carolina 15.



Honors College, Honors Program? Prestigious Scholarships, By Category

Of the fifty public universities in our survey, 19 have honors colleges (38%), and 31 have honors programs (62%). Below is comparison showing the number of prestigious undergraduate and graduate scholarships awarded, by category.

For purposes of the comparison, we are using the whole history of Rhodes scholarships; Gates and Marshall scholarships since 2001–2011; Churchill Scholarships since 1963; and all Truman Scholars since 1977. Fulbright scholarships are not included in the comparison because those totals have been adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population and raw numbers would be misleading in this comparison. They will be considered in the final review of programs and colleges.

We considered looking only at awards during the last ten years or so, but decided on a combined approach, using all Rhodes awards, for example, because of their prominence in the public mind and because they are the most difficult to earn, given the small number (32 this year) that are awarded to U.S. students. However, we are only counting more recent Marshall awards, as noted above. Postgraduate awards for UC campuses have been adjusted to take into account the dates on which they commenced operations.

The figures reveal that universities with honors programs have a higher proportion of prestigious scholarship winners than do universities with honors colleges, although the latter come close to proportional equality in the category of undergraduate scholarships. One possible explanation for the greater proportion coming from honors programs is that honors colleges are typically a more recent development in honors education; in some cases, the universities of which they are now a part did not have an existing pattern of receiving a large number of prestigious scholarships before the inception of the honors colleges.

On the other hand, the Goldwater Scholarships (1989) and the Udall Scholarships (1996), both for undergraduate research, are relatively recent additions that have given the newer honors colleges an opportunity to prove their value by over-performing in Udall Scholarships and holding their own in Goldwater Scholarships.

Here are the figures, bearing in mind that Honors Colleges are 38% of our Fifty, and Honors Programs are 62% of the Fifty:

Honors Colleges, Udall Scholarships, 44.1% of the total.
Honors Programs, Udall Scholarships, 55.9% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Goldwater Scholarships, 35.2% of the total.
Honors Programs, Goldwater Scholarships, 64.8% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Postgraduate Scholarships, 31.8% of the total.
Honors Programs, Postgraduate Scholarships, 68.2% of the total.