Dr. Abraham Fischler: A Look at His Life and Accomplishments

by Bernard McCormick Jul 2017

The weight of a compliment is directly proportional to the weight of the person giving it. Thus one of the most valued comments in our 56 years in the magazine business came from the late Dr. Abraham Fischler. We bumped into him at a luncheon a few years back. It was probably for Nova Southeastern University.

“You are one of the few guys in your business I respect,” he said. We had known the man casually from almost his first years at Nova in the early 1970s, but that accolade came as a very pleasant surprise. And we were pretty sure what motivated it. It wasn’t the long 1973 piece we wrote for this magazine, in which Dr. Fischler was already being credited with saving the young university from bankruptcy. More likely he recalled columns we wrote for the Hollywood Sun-Tattler in the late 1980s.  Nova had a growing law school, had pioneered the off-campus degree program, which was widely imitated, and had begun developing medical programs, and other curricula that filled a community need. A school that had been viewed as an educational joke was turning into a real university. 

But Dr. Fischler was upset that some of the new programs were being duplicated just across the road from Nova’s growing campus, at the satellite campus of Florida Atlantic University. As one who had been the key player in achieving the rare feat of making a new private university succeed in the 20th century, he naturally did not welcome such intimate competition from a state- supported institution.

We quoted him as saying there was no “educational” need for such state programs, at least not in South Florida, but there was an obvious “political” motive. Local legislators wanted to show the voters that they were doing something in Tallahassee. The Sun-Tattler, which expired in 1989, was little read outside of Hollywood. But it was an excellent little paper, and it was one of the few voices calling public attention to Nova’s legitimate complaint, and we gather our stuff had some influence. At least it mattered to Abe Fischler, who remembered it more than 20 years later.

Dr. Fischler died in April at 89, and to understand the importance of his luncheon compliment, one needs an appreciation of what Dr. Fischler achieved in his 50 years in South Florida. Among the dozens of people who contributed much to our economic and cultural development over the years, it is hard to think of anyone who took a more unlikely path to building something of such lasting value to the area.

In 1967 Abraham Fischler arrived at what was then called the Nova University of Advanced Technology. It was 300 acres of almost empty fields. He had a doctorate from Columbia and professorships at Harvard and the University of California at Berkley. He was attracted to a concept of a school exploring new ways of teaching science. But the school had blown through the money generously supplied by local families. It had 17 professors and only four students. 

The founding president was no fundraiser. Fischler was drafted to replace him in 1970. He knew so little about business that he called on Hollywood’s Abe Mailman, one of the early supporters, to show him how to read a balance sheet. Money was so short he had to hold faculty checks. He had to innovate in ways he had never foreseen. 

While cutting costs, he also cut a deal with New York Institute of Technology, whose wealthy founder, Dr. Alexander Schure, an education innovator himself, was able to fund the school. Fischler also launched the law school and an off-campus program offering doctoral degrees to cluster groups around the country. Many, this writer included, considered that a cheap degree, but the idea has since been imitated by major schools. And it saved NSU, which by 1973 was in the black. Cy Young, one of the school’s early trustees, summed up Dr. Fischler at the time:

“He’s a remarkable man. He’s a scholar, he’s a scientist, he’s an expert in education. And it turns out he’s also a damned fine administrator. And that’s very unusual, to find those qualities combined in one man.”

He displayed those qualities until he retired in 1992, by which time the relationship with the New York school had ended, and NSU had 11,000 students and multiple campuses. The once empty field was now a busy and spectacular campus. He had attracted a second generation of benefactors. Their names are on the buildings— Huizenga, Goodwin, DeSantis, Moran, Maltz, Case, Horvitz, Miniaci.

Dr. Abraham Fischler also has a building named for him. But his real monument is much larger. It is called Nova Southeastern University.