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U-M remembers former President Robben Wright Fleming

University of Michigan President Robben Fleming during student demonstration, June 1969.

University of Michigan President Robben Fleming during student demonstration, June 1969.

Robben Wright Fleming, the imperturbable president of the University of Michigan who steered the school safely through the student unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, died Jan. 11 at The Care and Rehabilitation Center at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor. He was 93.Fleming served twice as U-M’s leader—from 1968 to 1978; then as interim president in 1988, between the administrations of Harold Shapiro and James J. Duderstadt. His devotion to the ideals of academic freedom and civil debate amid social and political tumult led the regents to name the university’s central administration building in honor of Fleming and his wife, Sally, who died in 2005.“Robben Fleming will be remembered in the same breath as Henry Tappan and James Angell as one of the truly great presidents of the University of Michigan,” President Mary Sue Coleman said. “In an era of friction and fighting, he provided a voice of reason and respect. He served the University of Michigan with distinguished leadership, skill and integrity, and a grace that endeared him to a generation of students and faculty.”
President Fleming and demonstrators during his second term as U-M President, 4/15/88

President Fleming and demonstrators during his second term as U-M President, 4/15/88

Friendly, funny and unpretentious, Fleming as president drew on his background in labor law—unusual training among university leaders who traditionally rise through the mainstream academic disciplines. Yet his expertise in the mediation of labor-management disputes fitted him well for the challenges of his presidency.He was widely credited with adroit management of a series of crises, including the so-called “South University riots” of 1969 and the Black Action Movement (BAM) strike of 1970. His calm handling of raucous demonstrations, sit-ins and lock-ins often led to constructive reforms. He opposed provocative police behavior as firmly as he opposed the far left wing among student protesters, whom he chided for anti-intellectual intolerance. “The university must always be a world of ideas, often in conflict,” he told students. “It ceases to be a university, however, when a group which is willing to use totalitarian tactics can impose on the rest of us its views.”Yet he also won plaudits from antiwar students and faculty alike for calling the U.S. intervention in Vietnam “a colossal mistake.” His temperate influence was seen as critical to U-M’s passage through that era without the violence that marred other major campuses.Fleming’s most difficult moment was the 12-day BAM strike in 1970, when intimidation and threats of outright violence by the Students for a Democratic Society accompanied a boycott of classes to demand higher numbers of African-American students and faculty.Herbert W. Hildebrandt, professor emeritus of business administration and communication studies, served under Fleming as vice president and university secretary. He recalled Fleming’s steadiness when, during a tense Easter weekend, he met for long hours of negotiations with angry student leaders.”Under extreme oral provocation,” Hildebrandt said, “he consistently responded with: ‘I hear you; please tell me your position.'”The conflict was resolved without violence when the administration promised to provide financial aid sufficient to raise the level of African-American enrollment to 10 percent of the student body.”The fact that I have had a long experience in the labor field means that I don’t get excited in the way some people do about either controversy or challenges,” Fleming once told a reporter. “I don’t take flights of rhetoric quite so seriously as some people do. And I don’t view showdowns as the end of the world.”In 1973, as campus unrest ebbed, he observed: “I think in retrospect that the most important development at the university in the past five years was not a single event. It is the fact that we have come through without a disaster.”The Fleming era also saw major initiatives that advanced U-M’s standing as a global research powerhouse and augmented offerings to students. These included the founding of the Residential College and the expansion of U-M-Flint and U-M-Dearborn into four-year programs. Fleming presided over the university’s first concerted efforts to curb unfairness in the treatment of women and minority groups among faculty and students.And when, in a stagnating economy, state appropriations to higher education began to decline in the 1970s—a challenge that would dog his successors to the present day—he sought to uphold high academic standards amid unavoidable cutbacks.”He was a very skillful leader, using his low-key Midwestern style and good sense of humor to calm the waters and push through very difficult agendas,” said James J. Duderstadt, who was U-M’s provost during Fleming’s interim presidency. “He was one of those rare people who was able to transform disagreement into progress and policy.”Fleming stepped down as president to serve a two-year stint, from 1979 to 1981, as president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal funding source for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. There, his key achievement was to help arrange an epochal grant of $150 million for educational television programming from the philanthropist Walter Annenberg.After returning to Ann Arbor for semi-retirement, he taught one course each year in the law school, then was tapped as interim president in 1988. In that role, he helped the university weather several widely publicized racial incidents, paving the way for the significant expansion of multicultural programs that followed in the 1990s.Born and raised in the small town of Paw Paw, Illinois, Fleming graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1938 from Beloit College, where he was student body president and captain of the basketball team. At Beloit he met Aldyth Louise Quixley, known as Sally. The two married in 1942 and had three children.After earning a law degree at the University of Wisconsin, Fleming worked briefly for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, then as a mediator for the War Labor Board, his first experience in the resolution of labor disputes. During World War II, he joined the Army, rising in rank from private to captain and serving in North Africa and Europe.After the war, his labor work led to his appointment as director of the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Wisconsin, then to a similar post as director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois, where he took a joint appointment as professor of law in 1958.Meanwhile, he gained a national reputation as an authority on labor-management relations and as a working arbitrator. His prowess in settling workplace disputes led to the publication of a series of books and articles on the subject. It also attracted the interest of University of Wisconsin leaders who, in 1964, were looking for a conciliatory new chancellor as student protests began to stir.As chancellor of Wisconsin’s main campus in Madison, Fleming in 1967 did not want students arrested in a building takeover to become martyrs to their cause, so he wrote a personal check for $1,470 to bail them out of jail. He was named to the Michigan post only a few months later.Philip Power, a former U-M Regent, said Fleming’s understanding of human progress led him to embrace the possibilities inherent in clashes that might have unnerved other leaders.”I remember sitting in his office talking about some matter,” Power said, “and he turned to me and said, ‘Look, in all of history, all forward steps are accompanied by conflict. That’s the way it is; that’s the law of history. So let’s have some conflict!'”Bob understood very well that conflict was part of the chemistry of the water in which we swam, and therefore his job was to figure out ways to use conflict to move things forward. And he was just extraordinarily skilled in that.”

Correction: Fleming was president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not chairman. This article has been updated to correct the error.

Comments

  1. Chris Campbell - 1972 (MA), 1975 (JD)

    Robben Fleming was president during my entire time at U-M, 1971-1975. It was a time of great agitation and anguish. I can see, in retrospect, the value of a tolerant leader who kept a great university functioning. The value of his characteristics wasn’t always evident to those of us who were distressed over the state of the world. Now that value is plain as I look back and acknowledge that the U-M is the greatest institution with which I’ve been associated. He’ll be remembered for his contributions to its preservation and advancement.
    Chris Campbell, MA ’72; JD ’75

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  2. Sylvia Shippey - 1969

    I attended UM during the tumultuous years of 1965 – 1969. When I graduated in December of 1969, Robben Fleming was there at the reception to congratulate and personally shake each of our hands. Almost 30 years to the day, I heard him speak at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor regarding his tenure at UM. What became apparent to me was how calm our campus was during those difficult years, compared to other campuses, due to his skillful tact and diplomacy and serene demeanor. He truly was a great leader.

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  3. Dale Beck - 1968 BS Engin

    I remember attending open houses President and Mrs Flemming held for students at their home on campus. He was an approachable gentleman and I felt more at home on a huge campus having felt a personal touch by President Flemming. D. Beck BS Industrial Engineering 1968

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  4. Joan Rasmussen - 1970

    In 1968, I was among a group of students who went Christmas caroling around North Campus on a cold December night. On a whim, we jumped on a campus bus to main campus and went to the President’s House on South U. We stood out front and started singing. Before long, President Fleming came to the door and invited us in. His wife Sally was upstairs, a bit under the weather, and he asked us to sing to her. We stood at the bottom of the stairs and sang several carols. Afterwards he invited us to the kitchen where he offered us fresh coconut cake. He chatted with us, in no hurry to have us go, as ate the cake. I was new to U-M and the experience made me feel more at home in Ann Arbor. And over the next couple years when there was unrest on campus, I found comfort in having him in charge. Years later, I saw him at an event in Washington, D.C. when he was the head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I told him the caroling and coconut cake story. He called his wife over and had me tell the story again. He treated me as if we were old friends.

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