Robert J. Zimmer

(Photography by Joel Wintermantle)

Defining figure

President Robert J. Zimmer transformed the University of Chicago by affirming its core values.

When Robert J. Zimmer became president of the University of Chicago in 2006, he came to the Board of Trustees with a set of priorities and one overriding message: A great university is never good enough. Complacency is enemy number one.

For all its achievements, the University could not rest on its laurels—or its laureates. It had to keep moving ahead. “We had to be ambitious,” he says, “and we had to take a more outward look at how we interact with and affect the world at large, whether that involves scholarship, societal issues, policy, science and its impact, or the nature of the students that we’re able to attract.”

Doing well after surgery last spring to remove a malignant brain tumor, Zimmer is now preparing to transition to the role of chancellor on September 1, when Paul Alivisatos, AB’81, currently provost of the University of California, Berkeley, is set to assume the presidency.

That the University has become more engaged with the world during Zimmer’s 15 years as president is beyond question. The College has become more accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering has brought applied science to campus in a big way, and the University has strengthened its ties to the South Side and around the globe. For a school known for its excellence in theory, these are decidedly practical achievements.

Nevertheless, if Zimmer has positioned the University to face more outward, he has done so by looking inward to its own principles and history. Indeed, he has staked his leadership on a commitment to the University’s abiding values—most prominently, freedom of expression. Already in his 2006 inaugural convocation address, he said that his “core responsibility” was “to ensure that the University realizes its enduring values and fundamental principles in the most powerful and lasting way possible.”

A student in the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility in the William Eckhardt Research Center
The William Eckhardt Research Center, completed in 2015, is home to the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and some faculty and research of the Physical Sciences Division. The center's Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility is shown here. (Photography by John Zich)

Zimmer says that one of his proudest achievements as president is bringing molecular engineering to campus. As he is quick to point out, however, “there’s very little one can do all by oneself.”

“When Bob left to be provost at Brown, I told him that I hoped we would one day see him back at the University of Chicago,” says University trustee Tom J. Pritzker, MBA’76, JD’76. That was in 2002. When Zimmer returned to become the University’s 13th president, Pritzker says, they met at a cocktail party where they first discussed Zimmer’s idea for bringing a novel kind of engineering to the University. “That chance meeting led the two of us to partner on a wonderful decade-long journey.”

Today the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering represents a distinctly UChicago approach to applied science, comprising innovative programs in immunoengineering, quantum information science and technology, new materials for sustainability, and other areas that have the potential to transform health care, industry, environmental sustainability, and national security. A key moment for Pritzker Molecular Engineering was in 2019, when the Institute for Molecular Engineering, first founded in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory in 2011, was elevated to the status of a school and named in honor of the Pritzker Foundation.

“The creation of PME was the work of a broad community of people,” Pritzker says, “but from my side, at the core of our effort was Bob’s friendship and inspiration.”

University of Chicago faculty, Zimmer notes, were at the heart of the work to establish the school from the start. “We had a faculty committee chaired by [Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor] Steven Sibener from the chemistry department,” Zimmer says, “and the committee put together an exceedingly thoughtful and well-argued plan.”

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, who was a UChicago physics faculty member and vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory before becoming provost under Zimmer, says that planning an engineering program from scratch allowed the committee to follow the most promising science rather than being “hidebound” by existing structures.

Critical to the PME effort was Zimmer’s hiring of chemical engineer Matthew Tirrell as founding director (now dean), much as recruiting data scientist Michael Franklin, the Liew Family Chair of Computer Science, was key to increasing that department’s capacity for connecting to applied science.

“Building a team of people in a purposeful way is exceedingly important for getting anything done,” Zimmer says. “It’s not as if I didn’t know that beforehand, but being president of a pretty sizable and complex institution, one feels it and experiences that every day. It’s not just a matter of some abstract knowledge.”

Making a priority of bringing in excellent talent is something Zimmer says he learned about early on in his administrative career from Stuart Rice, now the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry. When Zimmer was a department chair at the University in the early 1990s, he went to Rice, then dean of the Physical Sciences Division, for help recruiting an exceptional new hire: “I said I needed X, Y, and Z in order to recruit this guy.” According to Zimmer, Rice immediately got on the phone, called the provost, asked for the resources, turned back to him, and gave him the OK. “I still remember it vividly,” Zimmer says. Rice’s “ambition, values, and commitment to excellence were so clear.”

Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, which fosters joint research projects by humanists, social scientists, and other scholars and experts, is one of many interdisciplinary institutes and centers launched during Zimmer's presidency. (Photography by Tom Rossiter)

Before he was president of the University of Chicago, before he was provost of Brown University, before he was UChicago’s vice president for research or deputy provost, Robert J. Zimmer was a mathematician. It was as a mathematics instructor that he joined the University in 1977, and it was as chair of the mathematics department that he began his ascent into formal academic leadership roles. He has also remained a mathematician, adding two books to his long list of scholarly publications during his presidency.

Mathematics was not Zimmer’s first career aspiration. As a young man, he wanted to become a physician like his father—until he had to dissect a frog in high school, which helped convince him to switch his attention to chemistry and physics. As a physics major at Brandeis University, he jokes, “I had a great magic touch,” claiming that no machine in the lab would work if he got near it. He knew that his strengths lay elsewhere. “So, I left the physics lab and walked over to the mathematics department.”

Zimmer’s research into ergodic theory, Lie groups, and differential geometry resists quick summary, especially for those not versed in the statistical properties of dynamical systems or the study of symmetries. Let it simply be noted that, starting from his Harvard PhD thesis, Zimmer’s work has been recognized as highly original—inaugurating an entire area of study called the Zimmer program—because of how it integrates seemingly disparate fields.

This integrative tendency is a deep part of Zimmer’s style of thinking, finding application well beyond the abstract realm of mathematics. “It’s affected how I think about the University in multiple ways,” he says.

As examples, he mentions the increase in professional school faculty teaching in the College, the incorporation of “institutional” programs into academic ones (e.g., the Urban Education Institute’s move into the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice), and a greater emphasis on public impact.

Similarly, arts programming at the University during Zimmer’s tenure didn’t just grow—it grew in ways that complemented and enriched what was already in place. “We’ve always had spectacular programs in musicology and art history,” he says, acknowledging the University’s established prowess in arts scholarship. What was less developed, and what he has helped to expand, was public performance, production, and exhibition. Strength in theory is a value in itself, and it provides a firm basis for closing the loop between theory and practice.

Alongside a greater emphasis on practice, UChicago Arts today pursues more, and more robust, connections with the University’s neighbors on the South Side. Under Zimmer, the Office of Civic Engagement has done the same, expanding programs and partnerships with the surrounding community and the whole city. “He has been our biggest vocal champion for the work we do,” says vice president for civic engagement Derek R. B. Douglas, whose office has distributed hundreds of thousands of free meals among other forms of assistance on the South Side since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—on top of its existing work building partnerships with small businesses and community organizations and providing residents with greater access to education and employment.

Douglas says this work “takes on a different level of weight and importance” when the president visibly makes it a priority as Zimmer has. “Not since William Rainey Harper,” Douglas says, has a UChicago president so clearly stressed the University’s purpose and responsibility, “not just from within, but also beyond the walls of the institution.”

As much as Zimmer is a born mathematician—he recalls lying in bed as a seven-year-old, thinking through arithmetic problems—it would be a mistake to characterize his thinking as simply mathematical or logical.

“His mind is very curious, and it’s fun to talk to him about almost any topic,” says chair of the University’s Board of Trustees Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65. “He just generates ideas on a continuous basis.” Neubauer says this generativity was apparent when Zimmer was hired as president, as was his extensive knowledge of the University based on his time as faculty. Trustee Mary Louise Gorno, MBA’76, highlights his wit, which “can lift spirits, motivate, and capture the significance of an idea.”

“He’s an extraordinary listener,” says trustee John W. Rogers Jr., LAB’76, noting how Zimmer reaches out to the board for counsel. And yet, says former University provost Rosenbaum, who credits his current position as president of Caltech in part to Zimmer’s example and mentorship, “When you interact with Bob, there’s no ambiguity about where he stands.”

Inevitably, this means taking positions on controversial issues. In March 1998, John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, who was still in his first decade as dean of the College, recalls Zimmer, then deputy provost for research, joining in for a “very critical meeting of the College Council.” The faculty group was considering a measure that would reduce the number of required Core courses, increase free electives, introduce minor areas of study, and create more study abroad opportunities—changes that Boyer, among others, had fought for but which were facing some opposition.

Boyer says Zimmer sat with him throughout the vote, congratulated him when the measure passed, and sent him a generous note afterward acknowledging his hard work on these reforms. Boyer also recalls how, after becoming president, Zimmer continued supporting him against those who viewed career programs as a waste of time or dismissed study abroad as frivolous. “You’re right, and they’re wrong,” Boyer remembers Zimmer saying. “And those programs have become signature elements of the College.”

Aerial view of the UChicago campus looking north toward the loop
The campus landscape was transformed during Robert J. Zimmer’s presidency, and the University expanded programs and partnerships with the South Side and the City of Chicago. (Photography by Soaring Badger Productions)

“Do you know what it means when you hand somebody a diploma?” It’s a question Zimmer likes to pose to academic leaders and faculty at UChicago and at other institutions. “What are you certifying? Is it that they sat in classes for four years and passed some tests and wrote some papers?”

Most members of the UChicago community, and even many outside it, have a distinct sense of what it means to be a UChicagoan—to be open and deliberative, to judge ideas by their merit, to wield sharp analytical tools across areas of knowledge. That common understanding owes much to Zimmer’s public advocacy for the values he believes make a great university possible.

The value he has become best known for defending is free expression. He has consistently made the case in speeches and op-eds that students and faculty alike thrive in an atmosphere that tolerates and promotes the free exchange of ideas. The issue here is not the First Amendment, which concerns the ability of the government, not private institutions like UChicago, to restrict speech. The question, Zimmer says, is whether to create the conditions for a great university or a mediocre one. “And I don’t want mediocre.”

His belief in the value of a bustling marketplace of ideas, while reinforced by his years in academia, may have deeper roots. Zimmer grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early 1960s, which he describes as a more diverse—and more tolerant—place than much of America at that time. “You felt that tolerance in a deep way,” he says. “It was super interesting and so much fun, with all these different people, with these different backgrounds and different kinds of quotidian cultures—just totally great.”

This kind of environment can counter complacency and self-satisfaction. “One of the great dangers with respect to free expression,” Zimmer told the Washington Post last October, “is people feeling very morally sure of themselves and dismissive of other people’s views.” You don’t get new ideas, new technologies, new treatments, or new policies from operating in an echo chamber.

Zimmer did not introduce this value at UChicago but rather reaffirmed it. The University’s long-standing commitment to free expression is codified in the 1967 Kalven Report, which states that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting” because it serves as a platform for critics of the social order. What Zimmer has done is to vocally recommit to this idea in the era of what some commentators call “cancel culture,” of which the chilling of speech on college campuses—especially the disinviting of controversial speakers—is a frequently cited example.

In 2014 Zimmer appointed the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which was led by Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law. The committee’s report advanced what became known as the “Chicago Principles,” which have been adopted by more than 80 colleges and universities around the country. The report reiterates the importance of open debate, in part by linking it to students’ ability to learn, grow, and participate in society.

In short, learning how to think requires not being told what to think. “When we’re handing somebody a degree,” Zimmer says, “we know that we wanted to impart a set of intellectual skills and habits of mind … that will empower you to deal with all sorts of questions, through all sorts of modes of inquiry.”

The University of Chicago is a different place in 2021 than it was when Zimmer became president in 2006. Admission to the College became need blind with a guarantee of adequate financial support, ensuring that, in the words of University provost Ka Yee C. Lee, offers made to low-income students are no “pipe dream.” The University broadened its global presence with new centers in Beijing, Delhi, and Hong Kong. Exhibitions and performances multiplied with the opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, and the Green Line Performing Arts Center. UChicago Medicine opened the state-of-the-art Center for Care and Discovery; the Duchossois Family Institute; and, in response to community need and advocacy efforts, the first level 1 adult trauma center on the South Side of Chicago since 1991. In these ways and others, the University has become more connected to the world while retaining its core identity.

“I think he’s at least a peer of the most successful presidents in the history of the University, in my view the most successful president,” says trustee and Law School senior lecturer Andrew M. Rosenfield, JD’78.

Looking to the future, Zimmer sees challenges and opportunities for higher education and for the University of Chicago in particular. He notes that the pandemic has forced us to think more about the capacity of remote education to reach more people in different ways. In addition to making education more available throughout the country and around the world, he says, remote technologies are helping the University rethink how to stay connected with its alumni through online content that lets them continue learning from their alma mater. The University’s Harper Lectures multiplied their audiences when they went virtual this past year, and even before the pandemic, work was underway to highlight faculty research through UChicago Review: Inquiry and Impact, part of

Making education more accessible, he believes, will be a continuing imperative in the years ahead. He also cites the importance of diversity and inclusion efforts, and the value of federal policy that acknowledges the positive value of immigration “not just to universities but to the country.”

In confronting those challenges, Zimmer says, “We need to be open to imaginative and new ways of realizing our values and mission.” For proof, one need look no further than the University of Chicago today—unmistakably renewed, and unmistakably itself.

UChicago’s Class of 2018 Odyssey Scholars
Odyssey Scholars from the Class of 2018. The Odyssey Scholarship Program, established in 2007, has grown in the years since to provide academic, social, and career support to students from low-income families, in addition to loan-free financial aid. (Photography by John Zich)

From more to more

The University of Chicago under President Robert J. Zimmer.