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Presidential Profiles

Robben Wright Fleming
The Michigan Alumnus 3

by Phyllis B. Wright and 
L. Hart Wright



(Editor's Note: L. Hart Wright, co-
author of this profile with his wife, is
 the University's Paul G. Kauper Pro
fessor of Law.)

At his inauguration on March 11,
 1968, Robben Wright Fleming 
chose to reflect on one of his 
predecessors:


H.P. Tappan arrived in Ann
 Arbor ... in the summer of
 1852, fresh from Europe. He 
was 47 years old, six feet tall
 and handsome, with side and
 under chin whiskers. In 
Ann Arbor, he was un
mistakable . . . outdoors, he
 carried a cane and was in
variably accompanied by one
 of his huge St. Bernards.
... in a day of stovepipe 
hats, he wore a felt hat tip
ped on one side. He walked
 briskly among the stores not 
unlike the lord of the manor 
in the marketplace of the 
peasants. He looked and 
acted like a University presi
dent. The students were not
 merely impressed, they were 
almost overwhelmed.


Fleming then, with a characteristic 
twinkle in his eye, offered a com
parison:


After reading that far, I 
stopped for contemplation,
 and to wonder about my
 own qualifications. Aside
 from being six feet tall, my
 image seemed inappropriate.
 In place of the two huge St.
 Bernards, I possessed only a 
small dachshund who had
 never learned to walk with a
 leash and who therefore pro
tested every step of the way, 
making choking sounds 
designed to attract the 
Humane Society. I did not
 own a cane nor a top hat,
 and the whiskers were all on
 the students. Instead of walk
ing through the marketplace 
like the lord of the manor, I
 found myself dodging both 
pedestrian and vehicular traf
fic just to stay alive. And if
 students were awed by me, 
they had the most extraor
dinary ways of showing it.


It was an address that revealed
 Fleming's soft sense of humor, his 
humaneness, but it also served to
 give notice that his presidency
 would be as different as the two
 different points in time.


Fleming arrived at Michigan at 
the start of an awkward era of 
transition and trial, as students 
became caught up in the challenge 
to America's conscience.


The preceding summer, nation-
wide race riots left scars, fears and 
anger — and 43 dead in nearby
 Detroit. In the fall, the American
 consensus was further ruptured
 when thousands of students, many 
from Michigan, marched on
 Washington to protest the Viet 
Nam war.


Ann Arbor became a focal point
 for the tension and turbulence, the
site of teach-ins and sit-ins that at
tracted students from campuses 
across the country.


In choosing a new president, the 
Regents were looking for more 
than academic credentials and ad
ministrative experience. Michigan, 
the birthplace of S.D.S. (Students 
for a Democratic Society), needed
 a figure of both compassion and 
authority, a leader who would also
 genuinely listen, a person who 
understood the fine art of com
promise and negotiation so that
 students, faculty, regents and the
 taxpayers of the state would con
tinue to think of the University as
 a common cause.


Fleming fit the bill. And the 
Regents' offer to him arrived 
barely in the "nick of time," for he
 was about to accept another 
offer to become president of yet 
another great university.


He had been a truly distin
guished professor of law at the
 Universities of Illinois and
 Wisconsin, an internationally 
recognized specialist in labor rela
tions, author and chancellor of
 the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison. It was a record
 demonstrating that he understood
 and esteemed the role and functions of higher education.


At the same time, he was a man
 long experienced off-campus in
 dealing with and resolving sharp
 differences of opinion over impor
tant sociological issues, ranked by
 his peers as one of the nation's
 top-flight labor arbitrators. One of 
the nation's leading labor lawyers,
 Theodore Sachs, recently com
mented on Fleming's talent:


While, like the Hutton 
broker, people listen when 
Robben Fleming talks, more 
to the point, he listens when 
they talk, and has the genius 
to figure out what they're
 saying and then to find solu
tions for their problems.


While his impeccable academic
 credentials were an imperative in
 the eyes of a great faculty, as 
events unfolded, it was his second
 skill that was more important dur
ing the first half of the Fleming 
decade as deeply concerned stu
dents took over center stage. At 
the time Michigan had 37,000 stu
dents of different ages and origins,
 nationalities, creeds and colors,
 enrolled in 17 different schools and
 colleges. But Fleming was quick to
 note one thing students had in
 common: They were "highly idealistic . . . war and race problems 
seriously disturbed them and raised
 doubts in their minds about the at
titudes of the older generation." In
 consequence, he quickly acknowl
edged: "Many of the University's
 own internal procedures required 
revision in order to give the stu
dents a more significant voice in
 the university society."


But such "revisions," given the
 diverse constituencies involved,
 would take time, and there was 
precious little of this as proven by 
three early crises involving local,
 national and international issues. 
Each tells much about the "Fleming 
Factor," how his style and approach affected and ultimately
 changed the Michigan campus.


The local issue was a student de
mand for immediate self-government, as well as participation in 
the University's other decision-
making processes. This reached the
 confrontation stage in September
 1969, over the nature of the ad-ministration of a new University-
owned and financed student book-
store. The incident culminated
 when the students held a sit-in in 
the LS&A Building and refused to
 leave.


Fleming decided it was essential
 to negotiate before calling in
 police, as had been done during
 sit-ins on other campuses. He also
 wanted the students to understand 
the implications of their actions.
 His first step was to appeal in per
son and encourage faculty members to talk with the participants.
 When that gesture failed, he se
cured an injunction from a local
 court, addressed specifically to the
 students. Only when they still
 refused to budge, around midnight, did he call the police. That
 night 106 students and one faculty
 member were arrested.


Later, he explained that stu
dents, in seeking participation and 
in proposing specific administrative
 changes, also had to be aware of 
the need to accommodate the
 varied and complex other University constituencies. In due time, 
however, he did institute several
 student/faculty administrative 
committees with shared responsibility for making recommenda
tions regarding University matters.


The even more explosive na
tional issue involved race —
brought to the fore on campus
 when black students and faculty 
presented demands for increased 
black student enrollment. The
 Black Action Movement (BAM), a 
new student organization with
 some faculty participation, called 
for a strike, and as a result some
 classes were disrupted in the spring
 of 1970.


Earlier in the pre-Fleming year
 1962, the University had adopted a
 disadvantaged student program
 modifying the manner in which
 achievement would be appraised
 for admission purposes. This 
helped raise the black student
 enrollment from its earlier one percent to over three percent by the
 time Fleming arrived. Even so, he
 soon publicly acknowledged that
 minority student enrollment was 
still a problem. Indeed, in 1969,
 his administration had prepared a
 program to try to double minority 
enrollment to seven percent over a
 four-year period.


But in 1970, after long, ex
hausting discussions with representatives of blacks, a new formula
 was evolved: The University 
agreed to provide the funding that
 would make possible a goal of 10
 percent minority enrollment by the 
fall of 1973.


The funding goal for 10 percent
 was never dropped, though never 
achieved during the Fleming years.
 Financial aid for students was in
creased from $2.7 million to $13
 million in his last year. But some
 of the related problems remained
— such as the special admission 
procedures, additional counseling, 
tutoring — and public (including
 some faculty) misunderstanding of 
his commitment, which hinged on
 financial aid rather than lowering 
of admission standards.


During a similar confrontation
 with women students and faculty, 
Fleming again found grounds for 
compromise. This included a requirement that before a new in
dividual was hired, recruiting units
 had to certify that proper efforts 
had been made to find minority or 
women candidates. A review of 
distaff salaries was also conducted
 and a grievance procedure in
troduced.


But it was the third issue that
 proved to be the most traumatic:
 Viet Nam. In 1969, as tension was
 mounting on the campus, Fleming
 accepted an invitation to speak to
 students at the much-publicized
 Viet Nam teach-in. He first ex
plained his own reasons for want
ing the U.S. to discontinue the
 war, but he also warned of the 
erosion in values deemed impor
tant to a university, citing the 
failure of those present to allow
 others whose views differed to
 speak and noting further the
 violent behavior of students which 
he thought served primarily to 
arouse the public against the
 University. To avoid one-sided
 teach-ins, he offered to provide University facilities sufficiently 
large to enable all sides to bear witness to their convictions.


In each case, Fleming worked
 unceasingly to keep the lines of 
communication open — sometimes 
for 24 hours at a stretch. His background led him to believe 
that, if problems could be identified, explored and discussed, at
 least a start could be made on
 resolving conflicts. His greatest 
fear was that protests would erupt
 into physical confrontations with
 police, accompanied by unneces
sary loss of life or property. Kent
 State was to prove that his fears
 were not groundless.


He explained his approach to the
 faculty: "I have no apology to 
make for the role of compromise
 in our life. Without it we would
 have chaos ... I was not born 
with a built-in divining rod which
 enables me to choose unerringly
 what is right in all situations. I am 
distrustful that other individuals
 are so endowed. On the other 
hand, I have a good deal of faith
 in our collective judgment. I would
 suppose that this would frequently
 require most of us to modify our 
initial positions. I do not find that
 disturbing."


No doubt during his first five
 years as president, Fleming probably appeared to some to be per
sonally preoccupied with events 
growing out of the impact of great
 social issues on the campus. But it
 was not exclusively so, if for no
 other reason than that a university 
must be on-going. Even the issues 
mentioned above became enter
twined with other matters of more 
typical concern to a university 
president.


The BAM dispute, for example,
 created added financial concerns,
 as did the Viet Nam issue which
 opened up moral questions about
 University involvement in "classi
fied research," and University investments in corporations with 
military contracts. With the need
 to finance 40 major research and
 development institutes or bureaus
 on campus, and with $125 million 
in investments, the implications of 
those issues to the University were 
immense.


Perhaps even more acute were 
General Fund financial problems. 
Fleming faced pressure from the 
Legislature to hold down expenditures and, at the same time, from 
the faculty for additional funding.


His solution was again com
promise, urging colleges to weed
 out programs less essential than
 others, to reduce course offerings
 when demand dipped, to even out 
admissions over the year by increasing summer enrollments, to 
experiment with highly individu
alized programs where no degree
 was desired. In general, to main
tain high academic standards at 
less cost.


On the other hand, he also made 
the final decision to fund the
 residential college, an innovative 
but costly addition, from the 
University's resources when outside
 aid did not materialize. He also 
supported the decision to enlarge 
the Flint and Dearborn campuses 
to full four-year programs. During 
his presidency the physical plants
 of the campuses were graced with
 six new libraries begun or com
pleted, the stunning Power Center
 for the Arts constructed, as were
 new sports facilities, residential
 units, hospital additions and
 numerous academic centers.


All of this was accomplished
 during a period when the con
sumer price index soared from 106 
to 205, making inflation a constant
 enemy, affecting University costs
 across the board. Oil prices and
 student financial aid multiplied at
 an even faster pace. While growth
 was not a part of Fleming's creed,
 increased student interest had led 
to major expansions in several
 schools — Business Administra
tion, Dentistry, Natural Resources,
 Nursing and Pharmacy.


If Fleming failed at anything, it
 was in connection with his effort 
to induce the faculty to change
 academic arrangements so that it
 would become more efficient or 
"productive" in the teaching (vs. 
research) function. In large part,
 he failed to achieve this because of
 his own competing belief that if a
 prestigious faculty was not per
suaded to make, on its own,
 changes of this sort, "good" in the
 end would not be served by trying 
to force such changes from the ad
ministration if any other alter
native was available. Among possible alternatives was increased tuition. And the fact is that during 
the Fleming years, tuition as a pro
portion of the general fund in-creased from 27.7% to 32.4%.


Fleming's term at Michigan can 
also be assessed by the judgments
 of outsiders. From 1968 to 1978,
 he was the recipient of no less than
 19 honorary doctorates, was ap
pointed a Fellow of the American
 Academy of Arts and Sciences, a 
trustee of the Carnegie Foundation, 
and president of the Association of
 American Universities. He also 
served business, government and
 educational communities on 20 
other boards and commissions.


Robben W. Fleming and Aldyth 
(Sally) Louise Quixley were married in 1942. They have three children — Nancy Jo (Mrs. Joshua 
Reckord) of Eugene, Oregon;
 James E., of Madison, Wisconsin;
 Carolyn Elizabeth (Betsy) of Ann 
Arbor; and two grandchildren,
 Rachel Reckord and Benjamin 
Fleming.


In addition to fulfilling with en
thusiasm the non-stop duties and 
pleasures of the University's first 
lady, Sally Fleming was an active 
participant in town as well as
 gown affairs. She devoted much
 time to the Presbyterian Church,
 the United Way, Planned Parent
hood and to the establishment of 
day care centers for children of
 student or working mothers. She 
has been an ardent amateur
 violinist — playing with civic orchestras and private chamber
 groups wherever home was —
since college days.


Most revealing of the partner
ship aspect of this marriage is the 
fact that the campus building 
named for this former president is
 designated as "The Robben W. and
 Aldyth Fleming Administration
 Building."


Fleming himself refused to label 
his presidency, except to note: 
"What Sally and I wanted to do
 more than anything was to perform with dignity compatible with 
the office, to enjoy as friendly and
 warm a relationship with the fa
culty and students as the circum
stances would permit, to exhibit an
 understanding of what a university 
was all about, to be tolerant and
 compassionate, but not at the ex
pense of the fundamental values 
which a university must preserve.
 Whether we succeeded is for others 
to judge."


But as to Ann Arbor, he is will
ing to judge. After resigning his 
position of three years as president 
of the Corporation for Public 
Broadcasting, he announced that 
he and his wife would return to
 the Michigan campus.

Fleming arrived at 
Michigan at the start
 of an awkward era
 of transition and 
trial, as students
 became caught up in
 the challenge to
 America's conscience.