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2010-01-12

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Former University President Robben Fleming dies at age 93

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
Former President Robben Wright Fleming is shown during a student demonstration in 1969. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published January 11, 2010

Robben Wright Fleming, the University’s ninth president, passed away yesterday morning at The Care and Rehabilitation Center at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor at the age of 93.

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
President Fleming with demonstrators on April 15, 1988
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
President Fleming with students in mid June 1969.

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Fleming served as University president for 11 years from 1968 to 1979 and as interim president in 1988 between the Harold Shapiro and James Duderstadt presidencies. During his first tenure in the post, Fleming had the difficult job of maintaining peace on campus amidst Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement — stoking turmoil on campus among students and faculty alike.

While many have drummed up the tumult that surrounded his years in the presidency, Fleming wrote in his autobiography that students remained unharmed and the period did not damage the University’s reputation.

“I am proud of the fact that we never had anyone hurt badly during the course of an incident, we had no residue of hate and bitterness arising out of our conflicts and the University remained the great institution that it had always been,” he wrote.

Fleming’s tenure at the University also saw major academic advancements with the formation of the Residential College and the expansion of the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses to four-year universities.

The son of a storekeeper and a teacher, Fleming was born on Dec. 18, 1916 in Paw Paw, Illinois — a small rural town with about 500 residents at the time.

In his autobiography “Tempests Into Rainbows,” Fleming recalled that the population of Paw Paw included mostly merchants and retired farmers. The community was so safe that there was no need for a police force or a fire department, he wrote.

During his youth, Fleming, his brothers Teddy and Jack and the kids in his neighborhood enjoyed tinkering with cars in their neighbor’s garage.

“We could devote endless hours to playing in them and in taking various parts off and putting them back on,” Fleming wrote in the book. “Even the grease that we accumulated on our clothes was a satisfactory price to our parents for the hours of diversion we enjoyed.”

However, Fleming’s childhood was not always so carefree. Teddy, who was 13 months older than Robben, died from spinal meningitis weeks before his eleventh birthday.

As a way of remembering his brother, Fleming took up Teddy’s middle name, Wheeler. Fleming never legally changed his name, but he used the middle name Wheeler until he entered World War II when he was forced to use, Wright, his legal middle name.

Fleming graduated from high school as valedictorian of his class.

Fleming’s father had died from tuberculosis in 1933, and Fleming’s mother could not afford to send him to an expensive university. As a result, he decided to attend Beloit College in 1938, a small liberal arts college, where he received a scholarship and worked jobs mopping floors and waiting tables in the dining hall on campus.

As a sophomore Fleming met Sally Quixley, who also worked in the dining hall. Soon after, the two started dating.

“She was a beautiful, dark-haired, slender girl of five feet six and was in many ways everything I was not,” Fleming wrote in his book. “She played the violin beautifully, she sang in the choir, she loved music, she won the poetry reading contest her freshman year, and she was a very good swimmer while I had all the buoyancy of a rock.”

After graduating with a baccalaureate degree, Fleming decided to attend law school. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he paid the tuition by working long hours at the law library.

While at Wisconsin, he studied industrial relations and labor law and ultimately received his degree in 1941.

He then went to work as a junior attorney in the Corporate Reorganization Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington. Sally soon joined him, and took a job as a secretary for an insurance company in Washington. During the holiday season in 1941 Fleming proposed to Sally, who immediately accepted.

The two were married in April 1942, a few months before Fleming was drafted in the army.

Fleming served in the army for six years. After finishing his services he returned to the University of Wisconsin where he became an assistant professor and the director of the Industrial Relations Center — an institute that combined teaching and research with the goal of to contributing to industrial peace.

In 1964, Fleming was named the first chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. Through the newly-created position, Fleming traveled outside the country to work on university projects in places like Nigeria, France, Germany and Japan.

Besides working on developments in foreign nations, Fleming dealt with many controversies centered around the Vietnam War on campus. In his book, Fleming cited one incident when student protesters took over the administrative offices where he worked and threatened to hold him hostage unless he agreed to their demands.

After serving three years as chancellor, Fleming received a phone call from University of Michigan Regent Robert Briggs, who asked to discuss the position of University President.

Around the same time, the University of Minnesota also contacted Fleming about considering becoming the president of their university.

After visiting both universities, Fleming wrote in his autobiography that he decided to take the job at Michigan, though it was no easy choice.

“It was a very hard decision to make, but some of the factors that went into the decision were the fact that we preferred a small city (Ann Arbor) over a big city (Minneapolis-St. Paul), we shivered a little at the thought of going still further north, and we knew that Michigan was one of the two or three best public universities in the country.”

Fleming officially took office on Jan. 1, 1968.

In his autobiography, Fleming discussed his experience leading the campus at the height of the Vietnam War. Fleming found the days after President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for a second term especially noteworthy. In the book, he recalls that a large crowd of students formed outside the President’s House, demanding answers to the University’s involvement in war research.

Fleming wrote the raucous was so loud that his attempts to answer the students’ questions could not be heard.

“So I suggested they sit down in the yard and quiet down so I could reply,” he wrote. “They did, and the crowd grew bigger until the entire street was closed off. Draft cards and flags were being burned, antiwar signs were all over the place, and, to my horror, a Confederate flag suddenly floated out of a third floor window of our house.”

While the crowd was restless, Fleming wrote no violence occurred that night and students left to gather at the Union after he spent an hour answering their questions.

Besides dealing with Vietnam protests, Fleming handled contentious civil rights issues on campus.

On March 20, 1970, the Black Action Movement — a group of University activists — declared a University-wide strike to protest the University’s goal of achieving 10-percent African-American enrollment in the next three years. BAM wanted the University to turn the goal into a commitment.

After more than a week of disrupted classes and faculty unrest, Fleming met with BAM and Secretary of Regents Herbert Hildebrandt to negotiate the University’s stance on the issue.

In his autobiography, Fleming wrote he stood by his decision to make the enrollment policy a goal.

“We were not prepared to take just any high school graduate in order to achieve a 10 percent figure,” he wrote, “and all of the data we had gathered convinced us that we could reach the goal without doing that.”

The parties debated the issue until 4 a.m. on March 30 when they agreed to let the University establish a goal of reaching 10 percent African American enrollment as long as the University provided financial aide to make the goal realistic.

Fleming wrote he believed he handled the situation well and that he wouldn’t change his decisions if he had the chance.

“The bottom line was that we avoided serious violence, we established much-needed programs for the advancement of black people, and no one would argue today that the image of the University of Michigan as one of the great universities of the world was diminished by what happened then,” he wrote.

In an obituary released by the University yesterday, Hildebrandt said though Fleming held the post of University president in tense times he was always open to listening to students’ concerns.

He recalled the incident when Fleming met with BAM student leaders to resolve the enrollment conflict without violence.

“Under extreme oral provocation,” Hildebrandt said, “he consistently responded with: ‘I hear you; please tell me your position.’”

Sally followed her husband’s lead and became an active member of the University community. Throughout her husband’s presidency, Sally hosted numerous dinners, luncheons and teas for University groups.

As part of her musical interests, Sally played the piano and violin. In 1997, the Sally Fleming Master Classes — aimed at providing School of Music, Theatre and Dance students the opportunity to work with renowned artists — were named in her honor.

The Fleming Administration Building — built in the 1960s — was also named in honor of the Flemings.

After Fleming left the University in 1979 he became the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While he worked with the CPB throughout the next two years to achieve funding for educational television programming, he remained an advisor to the University.

Fleming returned to the University in 1981 as a full-time law professor.

At the University Board of Regents meeting in December 1985 the regents named Fleming professor emeritus of law and president emeritus.

In the memoir, the Regents wrote, “Fleming has been a dedicated teacher of the law and leader of national stature in the field of arbitration. He has been a versatile and compassionate administrator.”

When former President Harold Shapiro resigned from presidency in 1988, Fleming became the interim president for eight months until James Duderstadt was selected as the new president.

During this time, Fleming once again acted as a mediator when groups of students alleged they were experiencing racial, sexual and gay-lesbian discrimination.

Fleming tried to devise an adjudication system to address discrimination concerns, but the effort failed when a federal district judge ruled that it violated the First Amendment.

After completing his time at the University, Fleming served in multiple positions. From 1985 to 1990, he served as a representative to Michigan Governor James Blanchard by finding solutions to medical malpractices that would appease lawyers, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.

In the 1990’s Fleming worked on various legal issues, serving as an expert witness in cases involving higher education.

Fleming is preceded in death by Sally, who passed away on April 15, 2005 in Naples, Florida at age 87, and is survived by the couple’s three children — Nancy Jo, James Edmund and Carolyn Elizabeth — as well as several grandchildren.

— Daily News Editor Kyle Swanson contributed to this report.