Robben Fleming Memorial Tribute
January 20, 2010
Let me begin by offering condolences to the Fleming family on behalf of the University community. You shared your father and grandfather with the Michigan family for decades, and we are so grateful for his leadership and friendship through the years.
I did not know Robben as well as the speakers who have shared such affectionate memories this morning. But in the time we did spend together, he proved to be every much the warm, witty and dignified individual who touched so many people here in Ann Arbor and beyond. I feel extremely fortunate to have known him.
Shortly after my husband, Ken, and I arrived in Ann Arbor, Robben and Sally reached out to us and invited us to University Commons. It was a wonderful evening that began by meeting the alumni and emeritus faculty who live there, and concluded with an entertaining and intimate conversation with Robben and Sally. They were a delightful couple and their love of the University and Ann Arbor was obvious.
Robben gave me a copy of his book and we talked about the turbulent era in which he guided the University. And it was turbulent. With the passage of time, we have come to view the unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s through a somewhat softer lens. 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.
He was the perfect leader for an imperfect time.
The Book of Proverbs tells us, “Be patient and you will finally win, for a soft tongue can break hard bones.” Robben lived that. He never abandoned his principles. In fact, his stance greatly advanced the principles of the University. He held firm in his objectives of maintaining the academic excellence of the institution and protecting freedom of expression and intellectual integrity.
And he always kept a sense of humor. Robert Frost once said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” Robben exemplified that. He once excoriated angry students about their use of profanity – not because it was vulgar, but because, in his words, “it was just that this group used the obscenities so ineptly … there was no color or flair to it.”
He was an exceptional leader and we continue to reap the benefits of his wisdom and actions.
I encountered the fruit of this work some 25 years after he left office, when I traveled to New York to meet with about two dozen alumni brought together by Tom Brokaw for a documentary on affirmative action in higher education.
The men and women in the room were some of the first young people recruited to Michigan in the wake of the Black Action Movement. In 1970, the University Board of Regents and the Fleming administration had established a goal of 10 percent African-American enrollment, and the alumni gathered in New York were among those who enrolled in the early ‘70s.
Each of these graduates was the first in his or her family to attend college. They spoke of how they never dreamed of attending the University of Michigan. Thirty years later, they were successful professionals in the fields of medicine, law, education, and beyond.
More impressive than their own accomplishments were those of their children. Among these first-generation college graduates, 95 percent of their sons and daughters had gone on to college. Ninety-five percent of the children of men and women who themselves never imagined higher education as part of their lives.
That is the legacy of Robben Fleming. That is the work of a man who stood tall and made a difference. He saw the University through racial strife, anti-war protests, and the energy crisis. He led the expansion of our Flint and Dearborn campuses, which today serve thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. He guided the growth of North Campus, including the establishment of the Gerald R. Ford Library and a new home for the Bentley Historical Library. And he steered the University toward greater opportunities for women students and faculty.
Robben Fleming was a leader dedicated to achieving the best. His profound commitment to learning, fairness and integrity continues to resonate on our campus and beyond, and we are forever grateful for his devotion to the University of Michigan.