Members of the University community fondly remembered yesterday former University President Robben Wright Fleming, who died at the age of 93. They reminisced about his ability to handle controversy and his love for the University to which he devoted a substantial part of his life.
Fleming served as President from 1968 to 1979 and then again for one year as interim president in 1988. His 11-year tenure is remembered as one of the most volatile periods in the University’s history as protests over American involvement in the Vietnam War and civil rights consumed campus.
After hearing of Fleming’s death, University President Mary Sue Coleman released a statement describing him as a terrific leader who will be held in high esteem by all who were involved with the University during his time as president, and all those who came after.
“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,” Coleman said. “In an era of friction and fighting, he provided a voice of reason and respect.”
University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) was a student at the University when Fleming was president. She said he was always soft-spoken and friendly when she would interact with him during her time as a regent.
“He was the right person at the right time in the president’s job,” she said.
Former University President James Duderstadt said Fleming was instrumental in keeping the University on track during a tumultuous period in its history.
“He was deeply engaged with the campus community, with the students and faculty on issues that really mattered to them during a time of great turbulence for American higher education.” Duderstadt said in an interview yesterday. “We all had a sense of confidence that his wisdom and integrity would keep the campus from blowing up in a way that many other campuses could not avoid.”
Duderstadt added that the level of political protest during the Fleming administration was unprecedented.
“It’s a level of activity on campuses that you don’t see today; something, quite frankly, I think we miss. In a very real sense during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the universities became the social consciousness of the nation and Michigan was one of the most prominent of those and I think its impact on our society has a lot to do with the wise, passionate, leadership of Robben Fleming.”
Duderstadt went on to say that Fleming’s history in labor negotiations — he studied the field at the University of Wisconsin — and his ability to get opposing parties to engage in discussions and compromise, ultimately allowed agreements to be reached, even in tense situations.
“Michigan was a hotbed — along with several other institutions — on these concerns,” he said. “President Fleming had this rare ability to listen to people, to share their concerns. He spoke out very forcefully at the national level about the concerns for the war and about racial equity. And I think while he handled confrontation, he did it in a way that both sides developed a very deep respect for him.”
Duderstadt added that Fleming helped ease his transition when he assumed the presidency in 1988. Fleming was serving as president on an interim basis immediately before Duderstadt took the post.
“That was a rare experience to see just how skillful he was,” Duderstadt said. “He used this Midwestern charm. (He had) very strong empathy with people in order to provide outstanding leadership, even during that brief period when he came back.”
Even after Fleming retired, Dean of Libraries Paul Courant, who served as the University’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs from 2002 until 2005, said Fleming was still very involved with the University.
A Michigan Man through and through, Fleming was an avid Wolverines fan, according to Courant.
“Long after he had retired and was president emeritus he would occasionally come by when I was provost and associate provost and just talk about the University,” Courant said. “He was a terrific football fan and obviously took great pleasure in the place and what it did.”
Duderstadt echoed Courant, adding that though Fleming was a fan of the Wolverines, he wasn’t shy about criticizing the team.
“Later in his life, my wife and I had the opportunity, for a number of years, to take him to Michigan football games because he was very passionate about the Wolverines,” Duderstadt said. “You have to remember that Bo Schembechler was his football coach. So, he really enjoyed the games and was very supportive when they did something right and very outspoken when they didn’t.”
— Daily News Editor Kyle Swanson contributed to this report.
To read a viewpoint from Duderstadt on Fleming’s passing, see “The Legacy of Robben Fleming,” Page 4.