January 27: His Big Idea Didn’t Have a Prayer

Willard C. Fisher was one of a handful of early 20th century professors at Middletown’s Wesleyan University who gained national recognition — although in his case through controversy, not his economics lectures.

Professor Fisher was a strong-willed man who never hesitated to voice his opinions, regardless of whose sensibilities he might offend. But he was not without a following. During his 20 years at Wesleyan he served twice as mayor of Middletown, advancing policies (such as forcing the university to pay for students’ damages to town property) that some university board members thought were contrary to the interests of the institution. In January 1913, however, Fisher literally made national headlines with a speech to a private Hartford social group called the Get Together Club.

As part of a conversation about Connecticut’s strict Blue Laws, which prohibited activities like drinking and most forms of business on Sundays, Fisher wondered aloud how society might benefit if churches instead of businesses were ordered closed on Sundays.

Traditionally, Get Together Club speeches were kept confidential, but at least one attendee was so scandalized he spoke with reporters about Fisher’s unorthodox remarks. The next morning, the Hartford Courant published a breathless report titled “FISHER ADVOCATES CLOSING CHURCHES: Believes in Uproariously Good Time on Sunday.” The morning after that, the front page of the New York Times, carried the headline “CLOSE CHURCHES SUNDAY: Prof. Fisher of Wesleyan Would Like it as an Experiment.”

Willard Clark Fisher, Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University from 1892 – 1913.

After weathering a storm of bad P.R., angry alumni and donors, Wesleyan University President William Shanklin called for a private meeting with Fisher on January 27, where he proceeded to ask the professor about his reported comments. Fisher admitted that while many of the newspaper stories were exaggerated, they contained “a large underlying element of truth.” Shanklin, feeling that Fisher had done the Methodist-affiliated university “a great injury,” asked for Fisher’s resignation, and the intransigent professor instantly (and by his own account, “cheerfully”) complied.

In 1913, professors like Fisher who were fired for controversial remarks had few — if any — options for filing a grievance or seeking redress, but thanks to his particular case and all the national attention it received, professors throughout the United States felt a renewed sense of urgency to organize to protect against infringements of academic freedom. Fisher’s questionable dismissal was swiftly condemned by the American Economic Association and was one of the primary catalysts for the group to create a multi-disciplinary committee to investigate similar cases. That committee formed the basis of what became the American Association of University Professors in 1915, which issued a formal statement on Fisher’s case as one of its first orders of business. An academic’s proposal that didn’t have a prayer helped pave the way for protections for outspoken professors, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

William J. Barber, “History of the Economics Department at Wesleyan,” Wesleyan University website