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Dean Fischer hopes to use peer mediation to solve student conflicts

William Fischer
William Fischer

On a clear day, you can see forever. But on a day when your laptop died, your paper is due and your roommate has stayed up all night again and left a pizza box on the floor again, you can't see an inch beyond the next shouting match.

That's the moment that William Fischer, the new associate dean for student conduct and risk management, wants to address at MIT.

"Conflict is inevitable. It's part of life and part of all relationships. And one way to deal with some conflicts is to stay away from the person or, in a roommate situation, to change rooms. But there are more positive and healthier approaches to resolving conflict that not only build community but also offer students life skills they can rely on when they leave college," Fischer said.

For Fischer, one of the most productive approaches to conflict resolution is mediation, a process in which the two people in conflict meet with a neutral third person who is trained to assist in identifying the issues, building common ground and helping those involved come to a long-lasting solution.

"By the time the alienated roommates get into a fight, we're dealing with the fight as a disciplinary matter and not the issues that led up to the physical altercation. Keeping disagreements from escalating is a lifelong skill," Fischer said.

Fischer, a lawyer, has been involved with the field since 1995, when he left his private law practice in New Jersey to work in the field of student judicial affairs and develop mediation programs at colleges and universities to benefit students.

"I saw there were peer mediation programs for elementary schools and high schools, but the programs dropped off at the level of higher education. I had seen how effective mediation was. I knew the magic and the power of peer review when it came to disciplinary processes. I went to work in the area that I thought offered a meaningful educational opportunity for students--a way to learn to keep conflicts from escalating," Fischer said.

A resident of Natick and father of two, Fischer worked in several university settings before coming to MIT. He served most recently as the director of the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution at Northeastern University. Before that, he was associate director of Student Life for Judicial Programs at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., and assistant director of the Student Judicial Office, at Illinois State University, Normal, Ill.

Fischer has also conducted mediation training programs at colleges around the country. He is a contributing author of "Mastering Mediation in the College and University Setting" (LRP Publications). He received the B.A. in English from Villanova University and the J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law.

Dean for Student Life Larry Benedict said, "I am delighted that Bill Fischer has agreed to join us at MIT. Bill is a nationally recognized expert on matters of mediation and college judicial affairs, and he brings years of experience with him. My staff and I are very excited about working with him."

MIT has offered training programs in mediation to faculty and staff over the years, and it was partly this commitment that attracted Fischer to the Institute, he said.

"Mediation is part of the culture here," said Fischer. "So is respect for students." Fischer said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 2004 (download PDF).

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