Robben W. Fleming served as the University’s president from 1968 to 1979 and again as interim president in 1988. He was widely recognized as among the University’s wisest and most successful presidents, admired and respected by the University community, including by those who disagreed with him.
He was a lawyer, an arbitrator and an expert on labor-management relations. Fleming came to Ann Arbor following his years as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During his time in Madison, he was famous for bailing out students who had been arrested for protesting the war. His training and personality served him well when he was forced to lead the University through the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and the peak of student opposition on campus.
In Ann Arbor, he constantly urged restraint, reason and thoughtful listening by all sides. When Washtenaw County Sheriff Doug Harvey was anxious to arrest and jail protestors, Fleming interceded in a way that was both firm and flexible. He later faced the Black Action Movement strike of 1970, when groups led by the Students for a Democratic Society called for more minority admissions to the University. The strike eventually resulted in a wide variety of affirmative action programs in admissions and increased minority composition on campus. Throughout this entire period, he avoided the violent clashes that took place at other universities. I believe that his patience, grace and unpretentiousness elevated him to national renown without ever turning his head.
His posture during these eruptions was simple. He believed that it was important to listen carefully and to make a sharp distinction between often inflated rhetoric and actual demands. He once said that his experience taught him not to be particularly disturbed by what opponents might say to each other (or to him!) but that consistency and calm could defuse almost any inflammable situation.
I remember talking with him in 1988, when I was serving as a regent. Sitting in his office with his manual typewriter on his desk — he preferred to write his own statements rather than dictate them — he said: “The entire history of human progress has always been accompanied by conflict. It’s an ordinary part of moving things along. You simply have to expect it.” Then he pushed his chair back, chuckled, threw his hands in the air and said: “So, let’s have some conflict!”
He was a perfect leader for his time. And his grace, humor and sensible behavior set a standard for all subsequent University presidents to follow.
Phil Power was editorial director of The Michigan Daily in 1960. He has published numerous community newspapers in Michigan and served as a regent of the University from 1987 to 1999.