Former University President Robben Fleming wasn’t fazed when a group of student activists came to his office presenting their demands in language peppered with four-letter words. In fact, it wasn’t too far from an average day at the office.

Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion
Former University president Robben Fleming took office in the late sixties during some of the most turbulent times the University has ever seen. But Fleming handled student protests so deftly he was widely respected – if not widely loved. (Courtesy of the

Fleming assumed University’s top job in 1968, a time when student unrest was so important an issue that it dominated the discussion when the University Board of Regents interviewed him for the position.

Fleming writes in his memoirs that after letting this particular group of activists swear at him for a bit, he had questions about their technique.

“I would be glad to talk to them provided the obscenities stopped and we used better English,” he wrote. “It was not, I explained, that I was unfamiliar with the words they were using since I had served in the Army for three and one half years and had bargained with some rough-talking trade unionists. It was just that this group used the obscenities so ineptly. A good first sergeant would be ashamed of them. There was no color or flair to it. Obscenities, when used, were much better handled by experts.”

Fleming noted the meeting was much more civil after that.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect resume than the one Fleming had for the job of University president during an era when the University was widely known as a center of student activism. A lawyer by training who had focused on labor law, Fleming had supplemented an academic career and a few years in the army with work as a labor arbitrator, settling disputes between management and unions at a time when the nation’s workforce was much more heavily unionized than it is today.

There, Fleming learned how to negotiate between hostile parties. He learned that much of human behavior in confrontations is essentially theatre. And he learned to be patient in the face of provocation.

His experience as a labor mediator made Fleming skilled in dealing with student leaders, but it also led him to take a far less authoritarian approach to handling student unrest than the presidents of many other universities during that time. Fleming understood that cracking down on disruptive activists or using force to break up protests were tactics more likely to create martyrs and inflame other students than they were to deter student unrest. This philosophy earned Fleming both conservative and liberal critics, who puzzled over his unorthodox approach to discipline.

Serving as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison prior to coming to Ann Arbor, Fleming put up his own money to bail out 11 students who had been arrested for trespassing after taking over an administrative office. The local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society had scheduled to protest the arrests that evening, but activists found it hard to criticize an administration whose leader had bailed out the would-be martyrs. Feeling that the gray-haired Fleming was constantly outwitting them, students at Madison took to calling him the “Silver Fox.”

At the University of Michigan, Fleming’s approach was similar. When an anti-war group wanted to dig a bomb crater on the Diag to show the destruction the United States was inflicting on North Vietnam, Fleming refused because digging on the Diag could disrupt plumbing and electrical wiring running under the ground.

He found them a safe spot near the Michigan League to dig instead.

When some faculty feared that a prominent anti-war radical scheduled to speak at Hill Auditorium in 1969 would rouse the students to violent protests, Fleming balanced out the program by giving a speech outlining his own, more moderate reasons for opposing the war. The speech garnered national media attention, and then-Vice President Spiro Agnew called Fleming “gutless.”

Yet Agnew, the Dick Cheney of an earlier generation, was so unpopular on campus that his criticism of Fleming merely won him points with students and faculty.

Fleming navigated treacherous waters and emerged mostly unscathed thanks to his habit of calling the cops only as a last resort and his vested belief in dialogue with students – who, he was well aware, happen to be right sometimes.

When protesters occupied North Hall to protest the presence of ROTC on campus, Fleming ordered the back door be left unlocked and unguarded, and the protesters left quietly in the night. When campus was divided over whether to support or suppress the Black Action Movement strike in 1970, Fleming eventually brokered a settlement without resorting to heavy-handed tactics like requesting the use of National Guard units to restore order.

Not every dispute, however, could be settled without the use of force.

When more than a thousand students occupied the LSA Building in September of 1969 to protest the University’s failure to set up a student-run bookstore, Fleming ordered Ann Arbor and state police to clear the building. Although he held off on approving police action until 4 a.m. in hopes that some students would leave, 107 were arrested.

The Daily’s editorial on the matter was not kind.

“Fleming has forced this confrontation, and Fleming has asked for a fight,” it said, going on to suggest Fleming needed to either change the way he was running the University or step down.

Fleming drew fire from all sides. Law-and-order types – like Washtenaw County Sheriff William Harvey, The Detroit News editorial page and a conservative alumn who told Fleming shortly before the killings at Kent State that he thought protestors should be shot – criticized Fleming for being too tolerant of campus upset. And though Fleming was generally liberal in his political leanings, much of the counterculture left was unwilling to consider that the University administration could be anything except a repressive force.

Fleming was nonetheless proud that no one was ever badly hurt in a disturbance on campus during his tenure, and he generally seemed unfazed by the criticism. He pointed out in his memoirs that “Since the human instinct seems always to be one of retaliation in force once there is trouble, those who counsel peaceful negotiation have a hard time gaining much credibility.”

From his work as a labor arbitrator, Fleming knew Walter Reuther, the longtime United Auto Workers president. Fleming invited Reuther to speak to student groups on campus a couple of times and radical students who found the UAW leader too tame would try – invariably without success – to defeat him in argument.

“(Reuther) loved jousting with students, perhaps because he was much too skilled for them to handle,” Fleming wrote.

I suspect Fleming harbored something of a similar attitude toward many student activists at the University. Of course, he had to hide it.

Not only could the students not swear as well as the military men and labor leaders Fleming had dealt with previously, but young, idealistic activists just weren’t very committed or effective – at least compared to the high power union leaders and corporate lawyers Fleming had mediated. Those disputes involved workers’ livelihoods and corporations’ viability, and the parties involved on both sides were professionals with deep interests in the outcome. Dealing with relatively inexperienced student activists who were divided among themselves as often as they were united against the University administration, must have seemed like child’s play in comparison.

When he was appointed, Fleming was offered an opportunity to live in a University-owned residence far from campus to avoid potentially hostile protests at the President’s House. Fleming, however, chose the house on campus to be close to the action – and kept a bullhorn so he could make himself heard over a crowd if needed. Indeed, Fleming made a point of presenting the University’s point of view at protests and teach-ins, feeling that students would act more moderately if aware of both sides of the issue.

Recent University presidents tend to be occupied more with fundraising than with actively fending off attacks on the administration – and today’s activists don’t have the following on campus to be very disruptive, if that were their goal anyway. With her academic background in biochemistry, University President Mary Sue Coleman would likely be hard pressed to match Fleming’s ability to work through difficult protests without simply calling in the police.

Then again, maybe not. It’s possible Coleman would shine in the same position if given the chance.

But since it doesn’t look like today’s campus activists will be mustering up a formidable protest any time soon, we’ll probably never know.

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