With the passing of former University President Robben Fleming yesterday, we have lost a Michigan leader of great integrity, distinction and compassion. President Fleming led the University during tumultuous years when Ann Arbor was a center of student activism. His great patience, negotiating skills and genuine sympathy for the concerns of students and faculty helped the University weather the decade without the destructive confrontations that struck many other universities. His calm, reassuring approach to difficult issues, tempered at times with a disarming sense of humor, served him well in providing leadership throughout these difficult times. During this period of protest and disruption, he had a remarkable ability to build compromise and cooperation out of confrontation. At a time when University students and faculty served as the conscience of the nation on major issues such as the war in Vietnam and racial justice, President Fleming spoke out courageously on many of these issues to provide national leadership in support of the concerns of students and the faculty.
President Fleming once observed: “If you start out as president by appointing superb people, you are about three-quarters of the way down the path of success.” The leadership team he assembled at the University included faculty members like Frank Rhodes and Harold Shapiro, who would go on to become two of the most distinguished university leaders of their era (at Cornell, Princeton and, of course, Michigan).
During the transitional period following President Harold Shapiro in 1988, while I was serving as the University’s provost, President Fleming returned for a brief period in an interim leadership role. This provided me with a remarkable opportunity to observe, work with and learn from one of the most able presidents in the University’s history as he skillfully navigated through the complexities of university activities, state politics, and student concerns with wisdom and understanding.
At my own inauguration as University president in 1988, he pulled me aside to caution that a public university president should never regard the slings and arrows launched by others as personal attacks. Rather, most critics were simply angry at the institution, not the president. But he also acknowledged that university presidents made a most convenient target for taking out frustrations, which he characterized as “the price of a society in which we place so high a value on freedom of expression.” His courage was illustrated by a second comment: “A university president must develop the capacity to tolerate risk as a necessary characteristic of the position. If you do not occasionally face critical moments when you must put your job on the line in defending or advancing the institution, then you are likely not doing your job well.”
President Fleming was always a great fan of Michigan football (after all, he hired Bo Schembechler!), and during his later years my wife and I were privileged to take him to the home football games. It was clear that people enjoyed seeing President Fleming in attendance at the game as much as he enjoyed the game itself!
It is ironic that today many members of the University community probably know the name Fleming by the building that bears his name, a formidable blockhouse containing the University administration. Yet, in reality, President Robben Fleming was a Michigan leader who was deeply engaged and supportive of the students and faculty of the University during his tenure, reaching out to listen to and share their concerns and speak out forcefully and courageously on behalf of the University. He will be greatly missed, fondly remembered and always honored for his leadership of the University of Michigan.
James Duderstadt is currently a University professor of science and engineering and president emeritus at the University. He served as the University’s president from 1988 to 1996.