How President Robert J. Zimmer built the future of UChicago by affirming its founding values

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 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.”

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“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.”

“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?”

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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.”


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