On March 12, 1968, Robben Wright Fleming was inaugurated as the ninth president of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was a time of great turmoil on college campuses across the country, especially at Michigan, which was in the vanguard of the radical student movement. Fleming had been hired to replace the retiring Harlan Hatcher largely because of the reputation he had built for controlling student unrest while chancellor at the University of Wisconsin.
Fleming’s background was as a labor negotiator, and he preferred to engage students in reasoned discussion and debate rather than send in the riot squad. As he related in his autobiography, “Tempests into Rainbows,” after learning of his interest in taking the top post at Michigan, the regents of the university invited him to the Pontchartrain Hotel in Detroit, where for two hours they talked mainly about how he would deal with student disruptions.
Fleming explained to the regents that he “thought force must be avoided insofar as humanly possible, that indignities and insults could be endured if they averted violence, and that … these problems would last for some unspecified time, but that they would eventually end.” The next day he was offered the presidency.
Fleming assumed the helm in Ann Arbor in 1968 – the most turbulent year yet in an increasingly tempestuous and troubled decade. Over the next three years he would face an escalating series of crises that would severely test his negotiatory approach to student unrest. There were protests against classified war research and the ROTC. There was agitation for the creation of a student-run bookstore. There were three bombs exploded on or near campus. There were three nights of rioting on South University Avenue, a serial killer stalking campus co-eds, and perhaps the most challenging event of his term, the BAM strike of March 1970.
The Black Action Movement was a loose coalition of African-American students and faculty united in the common purpose of expanding the minority presence on campus. BAM called for a campus-wide strike until the university agreed to meet their demands – chief among which was a commitment to increase black enrollment from 3% to 10% over the next four years.
The BAM strike was led by black students and faculty, and remained so throughout its nearly two-week duration; but white radical groups quickly became involved in a supporting role, and before long the normal operations of the university were being significantly impaired. Negotiations were conducted per the president’s usual style, but as days passed and no agreement was reached, tensions on both sides began to mount. Fleming was under increasing pressure to end the strike by force.
Just as it seemed that the situation might boil over into violence, however, there was a breakthrough at the negotiating table. An agreement was struck, the strike was called off, and bloodshed was averted. Fleming’s handling of the BAM dispute is often counted as one of his finest moments.
In that regard it is interesting to note that praise for Fleming’s presidency at Michigan tends to consist not of positives but of negatives – what he did not do. He did not lose his temper when dealing with student radicals. He did not in general respond to disruptions with force, as others might have done, and as some encouraged him to do. He did not call out the National Guard. He did not escalate conflicts until someone was killed.
Of course Fleming did on occasion use force to resolve standoffs with students. But he seemed to have an earnest desire to avoid conflict whenever possible, and when resorting to force he planned the action so as to minimize violence – for example, working to ensure that demonstrators occupying a building had an opportunity to escape out the back way as the police moved in.
Fleming’s seemingly conciliatory approach – as well as his public statements against the war in Vietnam – tended to give the impression that he sympathized with the student protesters and their causes.
But the president himself was the first to say that he acted as he did not out of sympathy but because of his reasoned judgment that a more extreme response would ultimately be counter-productive. As chancellor at Madison, Fleming drew the national spotlight after using his own personal funds to post bail for 11 student demonstrators who had been arrested following their occupation of a university office. He later explained that he did this not out of compassion but rather to prevent the students from becoming martyrs to their cause.
After Fleming’s death on Jan. 11, 2010, at age 93, many eulogies appeared lauding his tolerant, enlightened leadership during what was probably the most calamitous period in the history of the University of Michigan. Almost without exception these were based on Fleming’s own view of events, as put forth in his memoir, and the recollections of his colleagues and friends in the administration.
Those who faced him from the other side of the fence sometimes remember Robben Fleming a bit differently. A number of former activists who had occasion to interact with the late president provided their thoughts and impressions via phone and e-mail.
Steve Nissen: Human Rights Party
I was very engaged in activism at the University of Michigan when Robben Fleming assumed the presidency in 1968. He came to the job with a reputation for adeptly handling the turbulent student protests while at the University of Wisconsin. I found him more approachable than his predecessors and willing to engage in discussions with student leaders, which distinguished him from the aloof attitudes of other university leaders.
He didn’t make huge changes, but his openness gained him some increased respect and cooperation from the more moderate student elements, which I was not. However, he was not popular with tough-minded student activists because we were all functioning in a highly polarized environment and there wasn’t much room for compromise.
In my case, we disagreed, but our relationship was not disagreeable. He was soft-spoken and never strident in relating to student leaders, but he did not yield much, either. Given the times, he was probably as good a choice as possible as a college president for a troubled era.
Bill Ayers: Students for a Democratic Society
I had an interesting relationship with Robben Fleming and it continued long, long after he was president of the University of Michigan. We reconnected after I became a professor at the University of Illinois. He was in Chicago doing some work with the MacArthur Foundation. We had coffee and that became something we did periodically.
He told me years later that one of the things that was difficult for him was not the heat that he was getting from the students, it was the heat from the trustees [regents]. The trustees looked to people like Clark Kerr [at the University of California] and thought that that was the smart way to go, to hammer these students. Fleming, I think largely because of his background as a negotiator and a labor professor and so on, was more inclined to negotiate. He wasn’t a kind of Neanderthal standing at the gate insisting he had the only view. He always wanted to know what you thought.
The night that I remember most vividly was the last day of March, 1968. Lyndon Johnson had gone on television and announced that he was not going to run for president, and he would work to end the war in Vietnam. And we poured out of our apartments and we had this kind of spontaneous rally that raced through the streets of Ann Arbor and ended up on the steps of his house there on South University.
I had a bullhorn and Fleming came out and he had a bullhorn and what he said that night I remember absolutely vividly. He said, “You’re to be congratulated. You’ve won a great victory. You’ve ended this war.” And I think he believed it that night. I know I believed it. A few months after that it was clear the war would not end, but would escalate. But on that night, March 31, 1968, in the middle of the night, standing outside his house with 1,500 students trampling the rose bushes, he was calm and he was clear and he was congratulatory and that’s the kind of guy he was.
I think he genuinely thought that the war was a mistake. I don’t think he had a critique or an analysis that was against imperialism like we did, but I think that he didn’t think that the war was a good thing. I think the evidence for him of why the war was not a good thing was that it was tearing up the country.
He wrote a memoir about those days and as I remember it, he said at one point that while he and I had differences, we were always fairly civil with each other. It struck me as funny when I read it because I was remembering that night of March 31, 1968, when I was basically shouting, “Fuck you, you motherfucker,” into a megaphone, and he remembers it as I was always reasonable. I don’t think I was always reasonable, but he was a pretty reasonable guy and I think he believed in the power of reason and the importance of evidence.
Madison Foster: Black Action Movement
I have respect for him, that’s the first thing I want to establish. Respect as a scholar, an intellectual, and after I negotiated for the Black Action Movement, I have respect for how he negotiated. And also how things came out, and how he followed up afterwards. When he did make promises when he negotiated, he delivered on them. So in that sense I have nothing but positives to say about Robben Fleming.
As a negotiator Fleming was good. At first he tried some divisive things, but that’s okay, that was the name of the game. It was leaked to the press that the strike was over, and many students heard the news and backed off, and we had to go back and regroup again. Fleming threatened us early on to call the National Guard, and I for one called his bluff by simply saying, “Well, I guess we’ll die,” and we walked out. I wasn’t going to negotiate under threat, so I called his bluff, and he didn’t bring in the National Guard. [This would have been about five weeks prior to the shootings at Kent State.]
From my understanding, one of the reasons Fleming was brought to Michigan was because of the general student conflict at Berkeley and other places, and the left radical organizing that had been going on at Michigan. They were expecting some conflict to come off from white students. They didn’t expect the conflict to be led by black minority students at the time.
I would say the BAM strike probably was one of the few successful, if not the only successful student strike of that period – in the sense that we got about 90% of the demands. But at the same time much of that was because of who Robben Fleming was.
I had the feeling that he was open to having more African-American students enrolled at the university, that he wasn’t opposed to it. I can’t say for sure. If I had to guess I would think he was personally sympathetic. But he was a true negotiator. Don’t forget that. He was all pro.
I would credit him with keeping the lid on generally – there weren’t any casualties at Michigan, in spite of the fact that Michigan was probably the second-most radical activist hotbed after Berkeley, during that period. During the BAM strike, I wouldn’t credit him for keeping the lid on, I would credit the BAM leadership. We used conflict, but we kept some of the hotheads from doing violent things, both black and white. But I credit Fleming for not escalating the conflict by calling in troopers, or by escalating his rhetoric. In that sense he handled the situation well.
I tried to get to him. I got to him a little bit, once. He got angry enough to get up from his chair. We tried to keep him off balance, but he was basically calm. That’s what I mean when I say he was a good negotiator – he was calculating, and he was basically very calm.
Overall, I’d have to say positive things about Fleming. That might not be what some people want to hear me say, but that’s what I would say. I would say it if he were alive, to him. In fact, I did say it to him.
Eric Chester: Students for a Democratic Society
My experiences with Fleming were generally not positive. I found him to be a rigid personality, unwilling and unable to engage in a genuine give and take. Of course, I completely disagreed with his political perspective, but, even given this, I found other university administrators to be more likeable personalities.
During the book store sit-in [of September 1969], I was sent by the sit-in contingent to speak to Fleming. He said he would not negotiate on the issue of a university-run bookstore until we evacuated the building. There was therefore nothing to talk about and I soon left to report back to the sit-in group that Fleming was unwilling to negotiate. We were then arrested, and at a meeting of the regents shortly afterward the administration caved in and created the bookstore. Pointless macho behavior by Fleming, but then I suppose that’s why they hired him in the first place.
I did not find Fleming to be courteous. I met him rarely in an informal, personal context since he made little effort to meet with student activists. When I did meet him, I found him to be a cold, calculating technocrat. I did not like him and I did not find him to be particularly competent in dealing with the issues we raised.
SDS activists were radicals and socialists. We saw ourselves as part of a larger movement for fundamental social change. Fleming was just a cog in the corporate hierarchy. It is difficult to see how we could have had two more different world views. Even on Vietnam, SDS called for immediate withdrawal from the start. Fleming was one of many corporate liberals who began to think it had been a mistake well after it began and were looking for a graceful way out.
Rennie Davis: Chicago Seven Defendant
Robben was a friend of my family. He knew my father, who was an economics professor at Michigan State. We spoke together at Hill Auditorium [in 1969] at a time when I was the “popular” speaker to the student anti-war audience and he came in to speak, did well, but it took a little courage on his part.
A rare president leading a great university from the courage of wisdom is my memory of Robben Fleming. In a time of student passion to change the world, I marveled at his ability to hold and honor the center when side-taking was all the rage. His spirit to see humanity in any side is a legacy that will inspire us always.
James Swan: Environmental Action for Survival
I recall being called to Fleming’s home on the day after the Kent State shootings. President Fleming quickly assembled a group of faculty and students who had been active on campus political events, and he sought their advice and support to prevent something like that from happening on campus. He was genuinely concerned about what had happened, and determined to avert something like that in Ann Arbor. The meeting was a very honest discussion with all people’s perspectives welcomed.
I always found Fleming to be an honest, sincere person who tried to lend a sense of dignity and open-mindedness to his position, as well as the university.
Gary Rothberger: Students for a Democratic Society
Robben Fleming was one of the first of a new type of university president, one hired not for the ability to charm alumni and faculty but rather one who could do crisis management. Whatever he believed personally, as president he acted to stop real change in the university while conveying an image of corporate liberalism. He was fairly good at seeming to want to resolve the issue, if not for the extremists and their unrealistic demands.
To deal with Fleming was to realize that he was a cold dude who didn’t care about anything else other than carrying out his assignment. He clearly disliked SDS, our ilk and our desire for democratizing society. And he clearly was determined to smash the student movement.
A particular example of both his ruthlessness and willingness to act as the hammer for cooperate liberalism occurred around 1970 or ’71 when one of the first UM lesbian organizations attempted to have a conference on campus. Fleming issued moralistic statements and refused to allow the conference to go on and refused to discuss the issue.
His false and much, much too belated public semi-opposition to the war not withstanding, I have no idea what his own personal views were on anything except that, eventually, you are what you do.
[On the second night of mayhem on South University in June 1969] two or three of us went to the presidential house. He came to the door and we told him that the police were creating a riot and were clubbing people and gassing them for no reason. He said that he did not see any “inappropriate” police behavior and that the cops wouldn’t gas people. I then tossed a gas canister into the foyer and asked whether he thought that was inappropriate. He sputtered and mouthed a few inanities and went back into the house.
A little while later he came out and made some sort on innocuous statement that meant nothing and he certainly was unwilling to call out the police for brutality. I had been in Mississippi, and in Detroit during some of the riots there. I know what extreme police brutality is and I’m not claiming that this was at the same level as some of that stuff. However, they were gassing people and clubbing people, doing it randomly and were obviously enjoying it. Fleming knew it, probably didn’t like it, but clearly was willing to ignore it because he thought to criticize it would have been politically unwise.
You are what you do. He did nothing when he could have spoken out.
Paul Soglin: Students for a Democratic Society (University of Wisconsin)
His greatest strength was his belief in himself and that rational discourse would carry the day. His weakness was accepting the Cold War rationalization that the state must prevail over independent thinking. He should have trusted his own beliefs and instincts.
Jim Toy: Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front
We started the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front in the spring of 1970. Soon thereafter we got a message from the regents: “Will you please come to a regents’ meeting and tell the regents what Gay Liberation wants.” That day there must’ve been an overflow, because when I got there every seat was filled. So I said, “The regents have asked Gay Liberation to tell them what Gay Liberation wants, and I’m Jim Toy and I’m here to do that. Where should I sit?”
President Fleming, at the far end of the table, graciously stood up and said, “Mr. Toy, please have my chair.” So for the first and I would guess the last time in my life, I sat in the president’s chair at a regents’ meeting.
I told the regents what we wanted. Justice, in the sense of, for example, counselors trained to help people with concerns about sexual orientation. Changes in the curriculum. Changes to the university’s non-discrimination policy. And so on. And then they said thank you very much, and off I went. It would take more than twenty years before the regents would add sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policy.
In 1970 Gay Liberation Front requested university space in which to have a statewide conference. We received a formal letter from President Fleming denying use of space. There was a picket outside the president’s house, as I recall, protesting the denial. But a vice president of the Student Government Council said, “That’s okay, I have the keys to the Student Activities Building.” And so we had the conference.
I remember a friend of mine in Gay Liberation went to the Diag and burned a Bible. And President Fleming happened to be walking by, and said, at least by report, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” That was the extent of it.
If he got riled, he continued to be polite. And some people have been reported to say that this was one of his great strengths.
The author would like to thank all those who contributed to the writing of this story, directly and indirectly, with special thanks to Will Hathaway for providing a copy of his invaluable dissertation, “Conflict Management and Leadership in Higher Education: A Case Study of University of Michigan President Robben W. Fleming.”
Alan Glenn is working on a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Visit the film’s website for more information.