The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
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The Turbulent Period

The number of confrontations on the Michigan campus was fairly large, and the causes espoused by the confronters were widely divergent. There was a protest against the University's involvement with classified research; protest against maintenance of a Reserve Officers Training Program; protest against the Vietnam War; protest against perceived racism; protest against Regental action denying a student bookstore on campus, and many others. For purposes of this survey, one may select a few occasions which cast a light upon the kinds of events, and upon the style, the philosophy, and the effectiveness of President Fleming. He himself recognized the usefulness of his training, when he said: "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. You have to remember that the typical academic administrator has never lived in a climate in which he was challenged in the way that a trade union challenges management. I was very frequently exposed to confrontations between companies and unions. 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. Sometimes you have to have a showdown, and you take a position and that's it." But he made it clear, even during the most turbulent of the times, that he did not want to be judged only by his mediation skills. "The effect of stressing only a man's mediation skills is to make him look like merely an artful negotiator, with little interest in the substance of education," he said. "I am interested in encouraging a good deal of innovation and experimentation." Time would show that his presidency produced significant changes at the University.

A test of President Fleming's response to confrontation came early at Michigan. The president-designate had his first press conference on March 31, 1967. The public came to see a trim 50-year-old man with close-cropped iron gray hair and rimless glasses, a man who maintained the fit look and walk of the athlete he had been and offered a study in good-natured informality. The press conference ended in bedlam as members of the Students for a Democratic Society took over the meeting. Failing to get a straight "yes" or "no" answer to rhetorical questions about keeping all police off campus, student leaders taunted, "You are going to make a terrible president" and "We don't want you as president."

Page  4Fleming maintained his composure, as he would do again and again in moments of provocation, and observed: "I don't think you can have a great university without dissent. I will protect dissenters. In the case of demonstrations, I will interfere only to protect the University. I do not think that those who disagree with me are always wrong."

The next morning he met informally with a group of about 75 students in the Michigan Union and engaged in a quiet and orderly discussion of many of the same issues raised at the press conference — draft regulations, police surveillance, and student rights. He told the students that the University must respect the right of controversial speakers to appear on campus, that the right of dissenting opinion to be voiced must be respected. He also reminded the students that the right of the audience to hear a speaker without interruption must also be respected, for the two rights go together. He sought, as he later pointed out in his inaugural address, "a climate in which controversy can flourish, and can do so in an atmosphere of dignity and respect for others." He elaborated this theme in his first press conference as president. "I would hope to avoid the tyranny of the majority or the minority … This is a period of great social tension in which the university community is easily shattered because of our deeply-felt differences over such fundamental issues as war and race … The major job of every university president is to preserve the community without destroying the fundamental values which are an essential part of it."

In April of 1968, at the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a group of black students at Michigan occupied the administration building and chained the doors. President Fleming went immediately to the scene to hear their demands. They wanted a King Scholarship Fund and chair and more black coaches, and Fleming discussed the matters with them. The availability of the president, and his willingness to talk about any issues which were important to the mission of the university, were perhaps the hallmark of Michigan's administration during that period. The extreme violence and repetitive occupation of buildings which marked other campuses were almost non-existent in Ann Arbor. A leader of the Black Student Union, Ron Thompson, observed at the time: "Fleming is this university's biggest asset. He attempts to communicate with people. I never have the feeling I can't go see him."

Page  5Sit-ins, protests, and demonstrations on campus inevitably bring with them the question of when police should be called to enforce civil law. They also bring questions about the invocation of academic discipline by the University for the same conduct, and questions about whether arrest and prosecution by civil authorities should preclude discipline by the University. Fleming was clear that the University had both the power and the obligation to invoke academic discipline (expulsion or suspension, for example) for conduct which was not related to academic performance. In a President's letter to the University community he said: "The idea that seizure and vandalism cannot be countered with academic discipline disregards the fact that they strike at the most fundamental characteristic of a university — its freedom. If universities wish to continue to govern themselves, they will have to face the fact that tactics of this kind cannot be ignored. If universities are unwilling to deal with them, the power to do so will be lodged elsewhere. Some few students who view themselves as revolutionaries for a new and better order may welcome this. If it is the desire of our academic community to have orderly change, we will have it. If our community is willing to accept tactics that are incompatible with its very existence, there will be troubled times ahead. All of us, administrators, faculty, and students have a grave responsibility in that connection."

At the same time, Fleming was equally clear that calling in civil authorities should be avoided as long as possible, and he outlined his rationale: "When you call police, provocateurs are certainly in the crowd and will do everything possible to bring about violence. The police, unless they are extraordinarily well disciplined and used to dealing with student groups, may use more force than necessary in taking action and thereby incur the animosity of countless numbers who had previously been only in the ranks of the curious. A collision course, we now can see, reaching the ultimate tragedy of a Kent State or a Jackson State, is then set." He took the position in full recognition that it would not be popular with large segments of the population: "The alternate course is hardly more satisfactory. It calls for enduring a certain amount of damage, or intimidation, harassment and insult, in return for more rational and sane means of dealing with the problem. Sanctimonious editorials, written and oral, will then issue forth announcing that if 'gutless' administrators and faculty members would just face up to their responsibilities and tell those kids what the score Page  6is, nothing would happen."

Between November of 1968 and March of 1970, there were enough incidents to test all aspects of Fleming's philosophy.

On election day of 1968, a handful of members of the Students for a Democratic Society draped black crepe on the administration building and started a sit-in at the president's outer office. He refused to see them; his secretaries ignored them; no police were called. The protesters abandoned their effort after about three hours.

In March 1969, some twenty SDS members trapped a rookie Navy recruiter in a small room in a building of the College of Engineering. They dared the administration to call in the police. Fleming refused. The demonstration ended in about six hours, and charges were pressed against the group through internal procedures before the student judiciary.

On June 17, 1969, the second night of massive gatherings of students and townspeople along South University Avenue, some 300 state, county and city police used riot sticks, tear gas and pepper fog to clear 1500 people from a ten-block area. Police arrested about 45 persons, and many others were injured. Some of the students who were being gassed ran to the President's House, and banged on the door. He admitted some 40-50 of them into the house, and then, although he could legitimately have remained aloof from the situation, he went outside to establish a voice of reason during the confrontation. One of the authors was mingling with the protestors at the time, and overheard a protest leader say to his associates, "We'd better get the Hell out of here, or this guy will convince them all." Fleming worked with Deputy Police Chief Harold Olson to achieve agreement that the police would withdraw back below East University, and Fleming would seek to keep students out of the fray. When Sheriff Douglas Harvey warned that his men would make a street sweep in five minutes, Fleming told him, "That is a very poor tactic and I will have to make a statement to that effect."

The day following this incident produced events which illustrate two of Fleming's beliefs concerning the handling of student relations. The first is his belief that if students can hear a voice of reason they will Page  7listen, but if all they hear are the promoters of trouble, they are likely to follow those urgings. A group of persons had scheduled a rally for noon in front of the Hatcher library, seeking to revive the whole confrontation for that night. Fleming went over to the rally and insisted upon being heard. It was an effective tactic. His second belief which guided action often, was that it is best to have the initiative, rather than being on the defensive. Pursuant to this belief, the administration scheduled its own rally for the evening, in front of the Administration Building, far removed from the site of the other projected rally. The move was designed in part to draw crowds away from the South University area.

A crest in the wave of confrontations came in September, 1969. Over 50 anti-ROTC demonstrators seized and barricaded North Hall for five hours the night of September 22 — drawing a crowd of over 2000 persons in their support — before escaping through a back door at 2:45 a.m. Police had been called to guard the building, but were not asked to clear it forcefully, and Fleming had told the North Hall occupiers that they would be allowed to leave without arrest if they identified themselves. Their departure in the wee hours of the morning was taken to avoid that arrest. There was substantial property damage.

In September, during the week of the Regents' meeting, large demonstrations in support of a university bookstore occurred. Some 400 students invaded the Regents' meeting in an unsuccessful effort to force a change in their position which denied the creation of such a store. A sit-in followed in which more than 100 students occupied the Literature, Science and Arts building, and refused to leave. Fleming's response was predictable. He did not call police immediately. He began with efforts to find a peaceful forum, while simultaneously seeking to let the students know the implications of their actions. He refused to negotiate on the bookstore issue until the coercion of the sit-in was removed. He spoke in person and encouraged faculty members to talk to the occupants of the building. Late afternoon, when there was no progress toward clearing the building, the University secured an injunction from a local court, addressed to the occupiers. The large number of students on the outside of the building, and the barriers at the entrances made it impossible to serve notice of the injunction in a legally effective manner without forceful police action. Through the evening, Page  8continued efforts failed to produce any change. The sit-in had attracted large media attention, and even the Governor's office had become involved to the extent that the head of the State Police had been made available to President Fleming for consultation, and the whole of the State Police for such services as Fleming might want. Although Washtenaw County Sheriff Harvey was also available, Harvey's reputation with the students was such that it was feared his presence would produce a greater explosion. Harvey was carefully excluded from action near the occupied building. One member of the faculty, who had entered the building late in the evening, estimated that perhaps 500 to 600 students were still occupying the building. Finally, after midnight, when most of the onlookers outside the building had departed, the police were asked to clear the building. A sizeable number escaped through windows and doors and were not detained. Just over 100 students were arrested. The arrests were conducted by the State Police and were achieved in quite orderly fashion, with no physical violence ensuing.

Also in September of 1969, Fleming again demonstrated his belief in the principle that the University should be represented with a voice of reason when audiences were otherwise likely to hear only rhetoric of action. A student-faculty group had organized a weekend "Teach In to End the War" and invited a number of activists, including Rennie Davis and David Dellinger to participate. Davis was just back from North Vietnam where he had been instrumental in the release of several Americans being held prisoner. Fleming accepted the opportunity to share the platform with Davis at Hill Auditorium for the opening night of the teach-in, and his remarks were not only a cogent exposition of his personal belief that the Vietnam War was a "colossal mistake," though an honest one, but also contained a reasoned plea that reaction should not take any form which would produce further "erosion in values within our universities … dangerous to the climate of free inquiry." The teach-in was successfully channelled toward non-violent actions to force the end of the war.

The most widely publicized single confrontational event occurred during the latter half of March, 1970, when a group calling itself the Black Action Movement undertook to organize and implement a boycott of classes. The action was an outgrowth of long-simmering discontent with the number of minority students on campus. A special program for disadvantaged youth had been created in 1962, Page  9prior to Fleming's arrival, but minority enrollment had not reached more than about three and one-half percent. Almost a year before the Black Action Movement, the administrative staff had prepared a plan which was designed to double such enrollment in a four-year period, and calculations of cost had been made. Before there was any implementation of the plan, however, the BAM boycott was begun. The boycott started with simple picketing, but it was largely unsuccessful. One of the authors happened to be near a picket line on the Diag, and observed one young student carrying a boycott sign. She left the line, handing her sign to another student nearby, saying, "Here, you take over, I've got to go to class." When picketing failed, the leaders and radical students moved to more violent confrontations, both in and outside the classrooms. Personal threats to physical safety occurred as baseball bats and other weapons made their appearance. The action was largely confined to the central campus, and a large proportion of the university continued operation without interruption. There was, however, a period of intense emotion and concern that the violence and destruction which had visited other campuses in the nation might evolve. Fortunately it did not, and the action culminated in a series of long and arduous discussions with black leaders on campus, and an agreement on two matters: (1) The University would establish a goal of raising minority enrollment to 10%; and (2) The University would achieve the needed finances for such a program. Additional agreements were reached on matters of recruitment and supportive services, such as tutorial assistance and counseling. Regental approval of the agreement led to the rapid expansion and development of the Opportunity Program, and a number of agencies in the University to move the matter forward. There was some public misunderstanding of the actual commitment made by the University, which related only to financial aid. There was no guaranteed quota of minority enrollment. Actual increases in the financial aid budget moved rapidly from $2.7 million to more than $10 million by 1974, and to $13 million by the end of Fleming's tenure. Moreover, staff was provided for recruitment and supportive services.

The University's policy of seeking 10% black enrollment, and the financial commitment which that involved drew both criticism and praise. To some it was an inadequate response. To others it was regarded as "selling out to the rowdies," and these complaints continued as the disciplinary proceedings which followed Page  10were largely ineffective in bringing about any sanctions. The agreement attracted further national attention when Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, called it a "surrender" to militant black students, and asserted that it would result in the admission of unqualified students and devalue education. His remarks, in turn, brought angry responses from Fleming, from Governor Milliken, and from other political and educational leaders, indicating that the Vice President was badly informed on the whole matter.

Some of the complaints related to a perceived inequity by persons who were denied admission. For example, the parents of an undergraduate from Illinois complained that their son had been denied admission to the Michigan Law School even though his academic record was better than those of some minority applicants who were accepted. He was going, instead, to the Law School at the University of Illinois. Fleming wrote to the student as follows:

"It just happens that I was a member of the Illinois law faculty for seven years. It is a very good law school indeed. I understand that you're hurt in the sense that you wanted to go to the Michigan Law School and you paid some premium to do so. But if you look at this in the societal phase I would argue that you are not really hurt at all.

"You are going to a very good law school. You wanted to go to law school and that's exactly where you are going. Your hurt is only in wanting to go to a particular school and not getting your choice and perceiving that there are people being permitted to go whom your record outranks.

"I would argue that one has to have a somewhat broader perspective on this. In our view at the University, the societal justification for the system we are using for admission is greater than the kind of hurt which you have suffered and which others like you suffer. It is almost invariable that those of you with your kind of record who don't get in here will go elsewhere, and there are many good law schools in the country. So aside from a preference, I do not think you were really hurt."

The letter, Fleming said later, probably did not convince the student that he had not been done an injustice.

Page  11The "removal of racial injustice" on campus had some other inevitable backlash. Students whose academic performance would have qualified them for scholarships based on merit rather than need in other years now were being denied scholarships due to lack of available funds. A Muskegon Chronicle editorial charged the University with discriminating in favor of black students and with using a "quota" to be achieved by admitting unqualified black students.

President Fleming categorically denied the charges, offering that "if you can cite a single case in which this has been done, we will publicly acknowledge the truth of your statement." Emphasizing the social need to help disadvantaged students, the president insisted that only "qualified" students were ever admitted and noted that "If we had a 'quota' as you suggest we do, we would have had 10% black students by 1973-74. There have been far more than enough applicants to reach that objective. We will not reach 10% next fall precisely because we have a 'goal' and not a 'quota'. We will not take unqualified applicants just to reach that objective.

The racial overtones of this particular confrontation made it difficult to assess the propriety and effectiveness of Fleming's response. He later commented on the results of the incidents: "I don't think there is any question but that the events of that period crystallized the issue. I think the publicity we got out of that — good and bad — did generate a good deal of awareness that we do have a program of this sort. Symbolically, it did make a difference. Our admissions people commented a year or so later that they felt the agreement was generating a higher quality of applications. After the initially bad reaction on the part of the public and some faculty members it has more and more been accepted as a constructive development." Special minority admissions policies, he concluded, "enrich rather than erode the quality of education."

That his actions were highly regarded in some external circles is demonstrated by the citation given to Fleming by the American Civil Liberties Union for "complete commitment to the protection and enlargement of civil liberties on the university campus." The occasion was ACLU's 50th National Anniversary dinner in Detroit on December 6, 1970. "Perhaps more effectively than any other American educator," the ACLU said, "he had defended the duty of the university to serve as the arena for the Page  12clash of ideologies and to do so not timidly but proudly."

The dominant internal response, after the turbulence had died down on campus, was that expressed by psychology professor Wilbert J. McKeachie: "Michigan came through its disturbances in much better shape than most universities because President Fleming, in my opinion, had the backing of almost all of the faculty and many of the students." And Dr. Frank H. T. Rhodes, who served on the faculty, then as Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and then as Vice-President for Academic Affairs under President Fleming and later went as president to Cornell University, reflected on the years in this way: "As one looks at the accomplishments of the Fleming years, it is difficult to know how to identify the leading contributions that he has made. Perhaps the most important, however, is that the University has continued to exist, and maintain its intellectual integrity and communal trust. In an era when many universities caved in to pressure by agreeing to everything, Michigan was refreshingly unwilling to commit itself to the flashy and the expedient. In an age when universities sold their souls in some cases, Bob resolutely withstood both the blandishments and the threats of the left and the right. It is no small mark of distinction to have been singled out with appropriate condemnation by Spiro Agnew as one of the recalcitrant leaders of American higher education.

"As one looks at other campuses, it is clear that the integrity of the University has been maintained in the face of both internal and external pressures in part by Bob's own leadership and style. There is on the Michigan campus a remarkable absence of acrimony and animosity between faculty and administration, and his own involvement in a host of different ways has had much to do with this."