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Posted on Mon, Jan 11, 2010 : 1:15 p.m.

Former University of Michigan President Robben Fleming dead at 93

By Juliana Keeping

The University of Michigan president who oversaw the campus in the era of sit-ins, lock-ins and demonstrations died today at 93.

Robben Wright Fleming, who served in U-M's top position from 1968 to 1978, died this morning at The Care and Rehabilitation Center at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor.

Fleming also served as interim president in 1988, between the administrations of Harold Shapiro and James J. Duderstadt.


University of Michigan President Robben Fleming is shown during a student demonstration on June 18, 1969.

Photo courtesy of University of Michigan

"Robben Fleming will be remembered in the same breath as Henry Tappan and James Angell as one of the truly great presidents of the University of Michigan," U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said in a written statement. "In an era of friction and fighting, he provided a voice of reason and respect. He served the University of Michigan with distinguished leadership, skill and integrity and a grace that endeared him to a generation of students and faculty."

Before coming to the U-M, Fleming made his mark in labor relations and conflict management.

The lawyer from Paw Paw, Ill., worked for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission before serving as a mediator for the War Labor Board.

He joined the Army during World War II, serving in North Africa and Europe and reaching the rank of captain. Following the war, a series of academic posts in labor relations management nourished his growing reputation as an authority in that same arena.

A position as a professor of law at the University of Illinois and series of books along with articles on the subject of labor law led to his appointment as a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin. While there, leaders were eager to capitalize on Fleming's unique blend of mediation skills as student protests took hold in 1964.

Students at Wisconsin's main campus in Madison took over a building in 1967. Fleming called police to end the takeover, then wrote a personal check of almost $1,500 to bail the students out of jail. Just months later, he was named to his position at U-M.

At U-M in 1970, he faced a 12-day Black Action Movement strike, in which Students for a Democratic Society demanded higher numbers of black students and faculty, threatening violence to have their demands met. A promise of more financial aid that would help to raise the level of black enrollment to 10 percent of the student body resolved that conflict, one of many student-administration stand-offs during his term.

His once told a reporter about his approach to conflict management: "The fact that I have had a long experience in the labor field means that I don't get excited in the way some people do about either controversy or challenges. I don't take flights of rhetoric quite so seriously as some people do. And I don't view showdowns as the end of the world."

U-M professor Herbert W. Hildebrandt served under Fleming as vice president and university secretary. The professor emeritus of business administration and communication studies today remembered Fleming as steady and calm when Fleming met for hours of negotiations with angry student leaders over one Easter weekend to resolve the 12-day dispute.

"Under extreme oral provocation," Hildebrandt said in a written statement, "he consistently responded with: 'I hear you; please tell me your position.'"

The university's central administration building is named in honor of Fleming and his wife, Sally, who died in 2005. They are survived by three children. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Do you have memories of the University of Michigan and Fleming between 1968 and 1978? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Juliana Keeping covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter



Tue, Jan 12, 2010 : 10:23 p.m.

Bob Fleming was an extraordinary person. As the article indicates, he had a remarkably calm bearing regardless of what was being thrown at him. Literally. On one occasion, he shared with us at University Commons some of his experiences in the president's house on South U. Once someone threw a brick through the window of the sitting room at the rear of the house where he and his wife were sitting. Sally said it was remarkable nobody was injured. He turned to her and said "It was only a brick, Sally. And it only broke one lamp." She just rolled her eyes!! I had one especially memorable encounter with him in a Saturday meeting with our Dean (my supporter) and his VP-Academic Affairs (of a different persuasion). He listened to both sides, asked a number of questions, and then said calmly "We will do it as Tony and Frank (my dean) have recommended. Al, I understand and appreciate your position (to his VP), but I think this is the right way to go." And electronic course registration at UM became a reality in the 1970s.

Wayne Appleyard

Tue, Jan 12, 2010 : 9:16 a.m.

I think you miss represented the BAM strike in your article on Pres. Fleming. My guess is that it might have been before you were born? I was a freshman at U of M and helped picket Markeley Dorm to keep the staff out, potentially forcing a shut down of the dorm and the university. I attended most of the rallys for that strike. If the SDS had a role in the strike it was in spite of the BAM leaders. One of the main goals always mentioned at these rallies was to keep it nonviolent. The thoughts of Martin Luther King were often quoted. There was also a lot of anger against the national media that failed to cover it to any degree, in part, because it was nonviolent and so less "news worthy". Although it was a coalition of groups that worked on the strike, the leadership was the african-americans of BAM and not SDS. I feel that your mentioning the SDS in your comments did not do the strike and its leaders justice.


Tue, Jan 12, 2010 : 6:25 a.m.

Robben Fleming was a wonderful and kind man, I have know him for about 30 years since I have been a Member of the First Presbytern Church where he was also a long time member of the Church. He was kind and wonderful person to every one, not to just the wealthy members of the Church like some of the University of Michigan Administrators that are members of the Church. He will sure be missed by alot of People.


Tue, Jan 12, 2010 : 1:22 a.m.

@Sam-Yea, those who've grown up here remember Sheriff Harvey, someone I tried to forget about. When BAM (Black Activist Movement) begin their protest for that magical 10% it seemed like a very achievable goal. Sadly, UM has never met that 10% enrollment goal. Now with Proposal 2 being law, I seriously doubt it ever will. U.S. Census stats show the fasest growing segments of our population are Hispanics, whose numbers have overtaken African Americans. Guess they'll be another law forthcoming to slow any progress for minorities wanting to achieve. Thanks for Mr. Fleming for having the foresight to seeing the NEED to try to change this. He was truly an intergal part of the universities growth during a very troublesome time.


Mon, Jan 11, 2010 : 7:48 p.m.

President Fleming was very gracious, a real gentleman. When I was a freshman, he came to a tea at my dorm. I dropped my room key on the floor and he picked it up for me!


Mon, Jan 11, 2010 : 4:47 p.m.

I was a graduate student at UM when Robben Fleming was president, and I consider myself very lucky to have been here during that time. Without his wisdom and measured response to the crises of those days, Michigan would have been much worse off. I especially remember his handling of the rash actions of Sheriff Doug Harvey, who would have taken great pleasure in bashing the heads of students like myself. Thank you, President Fleming, for preventing the harm that could have ensued.