The selection of Robben W. Fleming as ninth president of the University of Michigan proved to be one of those rare, fortuitous choices upon which hindsight could not improve. Fleming arrived upon campus amidst brushfires of student unrest which had swept across the nation, and nearly half of his years as President were heavily occupied with crisis management. The Free Speech movement on the Berkeley campus had challenged the entire management of universities, their purposes, and their relationships with government, and had brought under its umbrella a variety of dissident groups. The idea of "participatory democracy" was heady wine to students who felt aggrieved by any perceived injustices, and all were willing to rally to the support of dissension in any form. The Vietnam War had become extremely unpopular with college-age youth, as well as others, and anti-war sentiment provoked strong emotional response from large numbers of students, whether or not the particular complaint was relevant to the university. There were persistent efforts throughout the country to force universities to "take a stand" on a wide variety of political issues, and these efforts came into direct conflict with a basic notion that universities, as institutions, were the place where all viewpoints were entitled to be heard. A small number of true revolutionaries were preaching a nihilistic doctrine that all existing social institutions, particularly universities, had to be completely destroyed, not merely reformed, before true social justice could be achieved. All these groups were to be found in Ann Arbor.
Fleming brought to that traumatic period a background and a training which proved invaluable. He was well known as a labor arbitrator — and thus experienced in matters of union-management confrontation. He was an able scholar, having taught at Illinois and Wisconsin. He was an experienced administrator, with service in the federal government, service as executive director of the Armour Automation Commission, a former president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, and most immediately as Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin. He came with a reputation that he could sustain goodwill, even among those whose interests suffered by his decisions, and his three years at Wisconsin had demonstrated that he could protect the right of students to dissent without loss of control, and was masterful in his ability to persuade divergent elements that it was both possible and necessary to Page 2preserve intellectual freedom without disruption. His reputation proved accurate, for his demonstration of grace under pressure repeatedly helped the University steer an effective course through a difficult period of campus unrest.
The story was told of an incident which occurred on the Madison campus shortly before Fleming came to Michigan, which is perhaps illustrative of his willingness to be both firm and fair — both disciplined and compassionate. The Dow Chemical Company, a manufacturer of napalm and a frequent subject of student attack during those years, sent representatives to the campus for interviewing. Students sought to disrupt the process, and picketed the proceedings with a resultant arrest of eleven students. As students saw it, the University should not have allowed such recruiting, and should not have allowed civil authorities to interfere with proceedings on campus. While maintaining administrative neutrality, and insisting there be no violence, Fleming calmed the student reaction, but then personally put up bail money for the arrested students. There was to be a student rally that night, and Fleming later indicated that he did not want the arrested students to be martyrs in jail. He wanted them present so that both could speak. He thought he could make a better case before the crowd than could the students, but knew that student sympathy would be with the students if they were still in jail. His plan worked and the administration prevailed. The Regents of Wisconsin gave him a vote of confidence. It would not be the last time that he was required to make decisions concerning the proper role of civil authority on campus as distinct from the role of university authority. He recognized the difficulty in drawing such a line, but expressed his own view that "the operative factor is whether or not the offense in question has any relevance to the university or is a result of university life."
But with the end of the Vietnam War, campus unrest and agitation ran its course, and the history of the Fleming years is not confined to a history of those events. Even during the turbulent years, and surely after they ended, there were more profound problems: financial crises; questions of public accountability; an enormous growth of governmental controls, both federal and state, affecting university operations; the need to establish educational goals responsive to student aspirations and to societal needs; and, above all, the need to preserve and nurture the greatness of the University of Michigan.