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Robben Wright Fleming
New York Times

Robben W. Fleming, who as president of the University of Michigan in the late 1960s and ’70s steered it through a turbulent era of student protests, using his labor negotiator’s skills to help defuse crises before they could turn violent, died Jan. 11 in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 93.

His son, James, confirmed the death. His father’s health had been failing for some time, he said. Mr. Fleming, who led Michigan from 1968 to 1978, was often described as patient and unflappable. Those qualities proved useful in March 1969, when members of the left-wing protest group Students for a Democratic Society, demonstrating against the presence of military personnel on campus, barricaded a Navy recruiter in a room.

Mr. Fleming, an opponent of the Vietnam War, refused to summon police, and the threat passed. But he stood firm against protesters in defending the right of the armed services to recruit at the school.

“The university must always be a world of ideas, often in conflict,” Mr. Fleming said. “It ceases to be a university, however, when a group which is willing to use totalitarian tactics can impose on the rest of us its views.”

In 1970, an activist group called the Black Action Movement, supported by many white students and the S.D.S., which threatened violent protests, demanded that the university increase black enrollment to 10 percent from 3 percent and called a student strike, which lasted 12 days.

Mr. Fleming, who supported affirmative action, negotiated an agreement with student leaders calling for an increase in financing for recruiting qualified black applicants and setting a 10 percent enrollment goal without committing to it as a quota.

Reaction to the settlement was polarized. Some hailed Mr. Fleming for finding a compromise position, but Vice President Spiro T. Agnew called the settlement an appeasement to radicals, “the University of Michigan’s callow retreat from reality.”

Weeks later four student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by National Guardsmen and a protest at Jackson State University in Mississippi left two students dead. Afterward, Mr. Fleming gave testimony to the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. “It may be better to suffer some damage and then invoke the university’s disciplinary procedures than to resort to force,” Mr. Fleming said.

Robben Wright Fleming was born in tiny Paw Paw, Ill., west of Chicago, on Dec. 18, 1916. His father, who died of tuberculosis when Robben was 16, ran a general store. His mother, a teacher, presided over Paw Paw’s one-room school house.

Mr. Fleming graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin and University of Wisconsin Law School. He worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington and briefly for the National War Labor Board, helping to end a strike by thousands of employees at the Western Cartridge Company in Alton, Ill. He joined the Army in 1942 and served as a lawyer in Europe and North Africa, helping to restore governments to cities that had been recaptured by the Allies.

After the war he became director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Wisconsin and took a similar post at the University of Illinois.

In 1964, he became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. He used his negotiating skills three years later when students demonstrated against the campus presence of recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company, which was manufacturing napalm for the Vietnam War.

Accounts of the episode differ — some say Mr. Fleming was barricaded in his office — but after the police were called and several students were arrested, Mr. Fleming covered their bail with a personal check. The University of Michigan hired him shortly thereafter.

“The regents went after him especially to deal with student conflict,” said Will Hathaway, who wrote about Mr. Fleming’s tenure in a doctoral dissertation at Eastern Michigan University.

Mr. Fleming’s wife, the former Aldyth Louise Quixley, whom he married in 1942, died in 2005. In addition to his son, of Mount Horeb, Wis., he is survived by two daughters, Nancy Jo Reckord, of Eugene, Ore., and Carolyn DiMaggio, of Saline, Mich.; five grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

After leaving Michigan, Mr. Fleming spent two years as president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He returned briefly to Michigan as interim president in 1988, succeeding Harold Shapiro, who left to become president of Princeton.

“No matter how outrageous the actions before him were,” Mr. Shapiro said of Mr. Fleming, “I always felt he had a way of maintaining his and our balance.”