From UAA with love: ISER's prominent first director passes at 99

by Catalina Myers  |   

Vic Fischer seated, autographing a book
Vic Fischer, UAA’s prominent first director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), died Sunday, Oct. 22, at the age of 99. Under his vision, Fischer helped build ISER into the highly regarded research institution it is today.  (Photo by Erin Hooley / University of Alaska Anchorage)

"I've always loved to grow things," Vic Fischer said in a documentary released by the Alaska Humanities Forum in 2022. Fischer, who was filmed in his Anchorage home, tended to colorful geraniums as he talked about his lifelong love of gardening and "watching things grow," which some might say is an allegory for his life of public service. Fischer, the last living signer of Alaska's constitution and the university's prominent first director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), died Sunday, Oct. 22, at the age of 99.

"I am very saddened by Vic's passing, but also am so thankful for what he accomplished in his 99 years," said Diane Hirshberg, director of ISER. "He was truly a visionary for the state, for Anchorage and for the university. For us at ISER his legacy is our sustainability and continuing reputation as the non-partisan source of research on critical issues facing Alaska and the Arctic."

Born in 1924 in Berlin, Germany, Fischer spent much of his early childhood in Moscow, Russia, before his family fled Stalin's regime in 1939, an experience that would impact the trajectory of his life and motivate him to devote a career to public service. At 18 years old, just one semester into his studies at the University of Wisconsin, the United States entered World War II, and Fischer enlisted in the U.S. Army. During his journey across the Atlantic in his ship's library, he learned of the country's wild, northern territory and vowed he would head West if he survived the war. 

Fischer made good on that promise, arriving in Anchorage in 1950 as a city planner. His projects took him across the state, where he learned about Alaska's people, culture and politics. Fischer was a delegate in the 1955-56 Alaska Constitutional Convention and served in the Alaska Territorial Legislature and the Alaska State Legislature. In 1966, he was tapped to lead the Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, later renamed ISER and often referred to as "the institute of everything."

From 1966 to 1976, Fischer grew ISER from a fledgling organization into the highly regarded institution it is today. Throughout his tenure, he recruited the state's top economists and researchers and raised the profile of the developing institution. His forward-thinking, collaborative approach allowed him to connect and network with people and easily move within political spheres from Alaska to Washington, D.C. In 1966, Fischer finalized a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation and, in 1967, secured $550,000 — an unprecedented amount — to rapidly grow ISER.

Fischer’s vision for ISER was to build a non-partisan institute addressing social and economic issues from community development, Alaska Native leadership, health, education, natural resources, petroleum, public finance, environmental development and many more topics. Under his leadership, ISER became a resource contributing to Alaska's history and transformation from early statehood, through the boom of the pipeline years, to establishing connections between researchers and scientific academies in the Russian Far East, to modern times, and the institute's current collaborations with scientists from across the Arctic and Circumpolar North. Fischer remained heavily involved in ISER and the university even after his retirement.

In 1996, the University of Alaska System awarded him the title of Director Emeritus, and in 2006, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from UAA. Even into his 90s, Fischer's steadfast support of the university was apparent with his continued engagement. Earlier this year, ISER established the Vic Fischer Undergraduate Research Award, which supports UAA undergraduate students in the social sciences and applicable fields to study public policy issues in Alaska and the Arctic. 

"Vic was a mentor to me and so many of my colleagues at ISER," Hirshberg said. "His office was next to mine for my first few years in Anchorage, and I learned so much from hanging out with him — hearing his stories, and getting his opinions on any number of Alaska issues. He clearly loved Alaska and was so humble about what he'd contributed. He had a great spirit and loved sharing his homemade caviar, vodka, chocolate and long conversations about politics and policy."

Fischer's legacy now lives on in the institution he nurtured and his public service to the university and Alaska. While many people find Alaska's harsh and wild landscapes challenging to plant seeds, Fischer's love of people and desire to "watch things grow" transformed his community and the state he dearly loved.

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