Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Leaders past and present pay tribute to Robben Fleming

“He was the perfect leader for an imperfect time.”

President Mary Sue Coleman’s summation of the contributions of President Emeritus Robben Wright Fleming, who steered the school safely through the student unrest of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, was echoed by a range of speakers at a tribute Wednesday in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Fleming, 93, died Jan. 11. He served twice as U-M’s leader — from 1968-79; then as interim president in 1988, between the administrations of Harold Shapiro and James Duderstadt.

“He was one of the most courageous university presidents of his generation,” Duderstadt said, recalling how Fleming’s calm reassurance and humor could defuse destructive contradictions that engulfed other major universities.

“With the passage of time, we have come to view the unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s through a somewhat softer lens,” Coleman said. “But we should never forget — as Robben was acutely aware of at the time — that genuine violence and destruction either threatened or scarred many campuses of that day.

“The University of Michigan was not damaged during that period of unrest but rather made stronger, and I believe it was because of Robben’s matchless personality. His gift — and it was a remarkable one — was in listening to the views of others, taking seriously contrary points of view and offering thoughtful resolutions in the face of threats and diatribe.”

“With every story I hear former students tell about Robben Fleming, he emerges as a force of wisdom and grace, especially in retrospect,” said Detroit News columnist Laura Berman, in 1975 a co-editor of the Michigan Daily’s Sunday Magazine. “He inspires belated wonder for his dignity and calm.”

“You always felt he had control,” said Regent Emerita Nellie Varner, who worked for Fleming prior to being elected to the governing board. “You always felt that somehow he was going to lead you through it with success.”

Coleman said Fleming had many significant accomplishments. They included: helping to set goals that increased African-American enrollment, leading U-M through the energy crisis, expanding the Flint and Dearborn campuses, guiding the growth of North Campus — including the establishment of the Gerald R. Ford Library and a new home for the Bentley Historical Library — and steering the university toward greater opportunities for women students and faculty. The Fleming Administration Building is named in honor of him and his wife, Sally.

President Emeritus Harold Shapiro, in comments read by Coleman at the tribute, said, “Michigan was a great university before Robben Fleming arrived as president, but he took this great institution another step forward in what was a very challenging time.”

Shapiro described Fleming as a “generous mentor to a generation of colleagues.”

“Robben was a great mentor who had the uncanny ability to keep his focus on the big issues despite many short-term distractions and the many incentives to take a less demanding path. It was Robben Fleming who taught me how to deal with difficult issues with humility and without losing my sense of humor or my perspective.”

Along with several others paying tribute to U-M’s ninth president, Henry Johnson, vice president emeritus of student services, recalled Fleming’s sense of humor. The former president, Johnson said, liked to tell the story of the time he arrived at Crisler Arena to see a basketball game, only to find he’d left his parking pass at home.

When he explained the situation to the parking attendant, and informed him he was the president of the university, Fleming recalled the attendant’s reply: “Sir, you’re the third person who’s told me that today.”

“He went home and got his pass,” Johnson recalled.

Fleming’s son James thanked the university community for the tribute. “What matters most to me is my parents were happy here,” he said.

Also appearing on the program were the Men’s Glee Club and a string quartet, which performed as attendees entered the theater.

A memorial service for Fleming was held Jan. 17 at the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor.