Professor Roger D. Fisher in his Harvard Law School (HLS) office. Fisher was a professor at HLS for more than four decades. A pioneer in the field of international law and negotiation, he was the co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Photo courtesy of Harvard Law School

Campus & Community

HLS Professor Roger Fisher dies

9 min read

Established negotiation and conflict resolution as a single field

Roger D. Fisher ’43, LL.B. ’ 48, co-author of the perennial best-selling book “Getting to Yes” and the Williston Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard University, died Aug. 25 in Hanover, N.H. He was 90 years old.

Fisher was a pioneer in the field of international law and negotiation and the co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project. A professor at Harvard Law School for more than four decades, Fisher established negotiation and conflict resolution as a single field deserving academic study and devoted his career to challenging students and colleagues alike to explore alternative methods of dispute resolution.

Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said: “Harvard Law School has been profoundly privileged to count Roger Fisher as a treasured colleague, teacher, and leader; the countless problems he solved, lives he changed, and negotiations he led or inspired are an awe-inspiring legacy.”

Through analysis and writing, Fisher’s work laid the foundation on which much of the field of negotiation and conflict resolution has been based. His best-selling book, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In” (co-authored with William Ury in 1981), has been translated into 23 languages and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. Prior to the publication of “Getting to Yes,” there were almost no regular courses in negotiation taught at academic institutions. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, of courses devoted to negotiation.

“Through his writings and teaching, Roger Fisher’s seminal contributions literally changed the way millions of people around the world approach negotiation and dispute resolution,” said HLS Professor Robert Mnookin ’68, chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project (HNP). “He taught that conflict is not simply a ‘zero-sum’ game in which a fixed pie is simply divided through haggling or threats. Instead, he showed how by exploring underlying interests and being imaginative, parties could often expand the pie and create value.”

In 1979, Fisher co-founded the Harvard Negotiation Project with Ury and Bruce Patton ’84, serving as the director. HNP’s mission is “to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation by working on real-world conflict intervention, theory building, education and training, and writing and disseminating new ideas.”

Patton, who co-wrote the 1991 edition of “Getting to Yes” and is a Distinguished Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project, said Fisher’s legacy was much broader than his work on negotiation. “Roger sought to build a systematic toolbox for analyzing and diagnosing the causes of any disliked situation and finding practical, effective ways to move it toward a preferred state. Like a hard scientist, Roger believed that one could not build such tools (or teach them effectively) without being able to test and refine them in the crucible of practice.”

According to Patton, Fisher’s efforts contributed directly and materially to multiple steps toward peace in the Middle East, including Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, and the Camp David summit that led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; peace in Central America and especially in El Salvador; the resolution of the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere between Ecuador and Peru; the breakthrough that enabled resolution of the Iranian hostage conflict in 1980; a fundamental reshaping of the U.S.-Soviet relationship; and the negotiations and constitutional process that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa. (Read the full text of Pattons’ tribute here.) Fisher is also recognized as the intellectual father of the “West Point Negotiation Project,” which has trained Army officers and cadets to recognize conflicts and apply the tools of principled negotiation in both peace and war.

Ury, a mediator for more than 30 years, said Fisher had a tremendous influence on students and colleagues. Ury said his own future was shaped by a seminal phone call from Fisher in 1977. As a graduate student in social anthropology, Ury received a call from Fisher praising Ury on his research paper, which proposed an anthropological study of the Middle East peace negotiations. Fisher told Ury that he liked his paper so much he sent it to the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, and wanted Ury to work with him.

“I was stunned. Never had I expected a professor to call me up, let alone invite me to collaborate, or see one of my ideas offered up for practical application,” said Ury. “Roger introduced me to the field of negotiation, taught and mentored me, and shaped my career more than anyone. It would be impossible for me to imagine my work without the inspiration and influence of Roger Fisher.“

Robert C. Bordone ’97, the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law and the director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, said: “Roger was a master at the art of perspective-taking, of understanding how deep human needs — to be heard, valued, respected, autonomous, and safe — when unmet or trampled upon, become seeds of evil and violence, seeds that can cause us to vilify each other, and that motivate us to see the world in stark black-and-white terms. For Roger, the purpose of perspective-taking was never to excuse or justify evil. Rather, it was a way to discover new approaches to diplomacy, to influence and to understanding.”

During World War II, Fisher served in the U.S. Army Air Force in the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters as a weather reconnaissance observer. After discovering that his college roommate and two of his best friends were killed in the war, he dedicated most of his life to finding a better way to deal with the kind of differences that produce war.

Fifty years after his graduation from Harvard College in 1943, Fisher wrote for his Class Report: “Since our freshman year, beginning in the fall of 1939 with World War II, the primary focus of my interest has been how the world copes with its conflicting values, perceptions, wants, and needs. After losing my roommate and some of my best friends in war, I knew we had to find a better way for people to deal with their differences.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, Fisher passed up a clerkship for Chief Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to move to Paris, where he worked on the Marshall Plan under W. Averell Harriman until 1949.

After returning to the United States, Fisher worked for the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling from 1950 to 1956, with most of his work dealing with international issues. From 1956 to 1958, he served as an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general in the Department of Justice. In 1957, Fisher argued for the United States in Roth v. United States, a landmark obscenity case, and won.

Fisher joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1958 and became a full professor of law in 1960. In 1976, he became the Samuel Williston Professor of Law. In 1992, he was named a professor emeritus. He also taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the London School of Economics, the Naval War College, Air War College, and the NATO Defense College.

During the 1960s, he served as a consultant to John McNaughton, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for international security affairs. Some of his suggestions for ways to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam are documented in “The Pentagon Papers.” Fisher went on to publish a critique of U.S. policy failures in Vietnam in his 1969 book “International Conflict for Beginners.”

A strong advocate for using the medium of television as a means to disseminate both legal issues and current events to a broader audience, Fisher proposed the Peabody Award-winning television program “The Advocates” in 1969. The program focused on “stimulating public participation, and understanding, by focusing on realistic choices that must be made in the future, by having both sides of the question presented, and by demonstrating the interest that public officials have in both reasoned arguments and the views of their constituents.” Fisher served as executive producer from 1969 to 1974, and then again from 1978 to1979.

In 1970, in connection with a segment of “The Advocates,” Fisher became the last Westerner to interview President Nasser of Egypt, and his questions elicited from Nasser an unexpected willingness to accept a ceasefire with Israel in the “war of attrition” then raging along the Suez Canal. Fisher brought the interview to the attention of Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson ’47 and thus helped stimulate what became known as the Rogers Plan (named for Nixon’s Secretary of State William Pierce Rogers), which ultimately produced a ceasefire.

Through the consulting firms of Conflict Management Inc. and Vantage Partners, and with the nonprofit Conflict Management Group (now part of Mercy Corps), which he co-founded, Fisher taught and advised corporate executives, labor leaders, attorneys, diplomats, and military and government officials on settlement and negotiation strategy.

This past April, Fisher was honored for his contributions to Harvard Law School and the field of negotiation with a celebration of his career there. The event also marked the opening of his papers in the Harvard Law School Library’s Historical and Special Collections. The papers, spanning 60 years of Fisher’s career as a lawyer and an academic, include such diverse materials as notes related to his books, as well as his work on the television series “The Advocates.”

(See Fisher’s complete bibliography here.)

For 62 years, Fisher was married to Caroline McMurtrie Speer, who died in 2010. He is survived by his two sons, Elliott S. Fisher (Harvard College ’74, Harvard Medical School, M.D. ’81, University of Washington, M.P.H. ’85), professor of medicine and director for population health and policy at The Dartmouth Institute; and Peter R. Fisher (Harvard College ’80, Harvard Law School, J.D. ’85), who worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and as undersecretary of the treasury, and is now senior managing director of BlackRock. He is also survived by two brothers, John V. Fisher (Harvard College, S.B. ’42) and Francis D. Fisher (Harvard College, A.B. ’47, Harvard Law School, J.D. ’51), and five grandchildren.

In 2002, at a celebration in honor of Fisher’s 80th birthday at Harvard, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith said of his friend and colleague: “Whenever I thought, ‘Someone should do something about this,’ it eased my conscience to learn that Roger was already working on it.”

A memorial service honoring Fisher’s life, work, and memory will be held on Oct. 27 at 11 a.m. in Appleton Chapel at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.