Robert J. Zimmer, Chancellor Emeritus and Thirteenth President of the University of Chicago, 1947-2023

In 2014, Zimmer appointed the Commission on Free Speech, which created what became known as the “Chicago Principles,” a resounding declaration of commitment to free speech. The Chicago Principles have been highly influential in higher education, including partial or full adoption by more than 80 colleges and universities across the country. Through speeches, public appearances, and opinion pieces, Zimmer advocated the free exchange of ideas as necessary for faculty and students to study any issue they chose, and to engage with a wide range of viewpoints. Zimmer led the charge on freedom of speech New York times in 2017 to be called the “Most Important Voice” in academia and “America’s Best University President”.

“Basically, people are very comfortable with free speech for those they agree with. For those who see them as undesirable or wrong, they’re not motivated to get people to be able to hear them,” Zimmer said in a 2021 interview. “The whole point of education centers around Ongoing intellectual challenge and open discourse.

Zimmer’s legacy also includes developing an extraordinary group of future leaders. More than half a dozen former UChicago administrators and deans who served under Zimmer have been appointed to lead universities and colleges—at institutions including Caltech, Dartmouth, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt.

Unprecedented legacy

Less than a year after he took office, in 2007 the university announced a $100 million gift from an anonymous alumnus benefactor named “Homer,” who had established the Odyssey Scholarship Program to support financial aid for students who needed it most.

In addition to Odyssey, which allowed many first-generation students to attend the university, the university has created initiatives that have benefited students from all backgrounds, and which since 2005 have led to a 300% increase in applications to the university. In 2021, the university launched a new $200 million commitment to education access and financial aid, through a gift from the Board of Trustees, in honor of Zimmer.

“Bob Zimmer was a leader of astonishing energy, vision, and deep impatience with consideration for the status quo,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the college. “He had a keen sense of the strength of the university’s cultural identity, reputation, and historical distinction in the world of American higher education, along with an urgent insistence that the university not fall into complacency by neglecting its own potential for further excellence.”

Under Zimmer’s leadership, the university received significant philanthropic support to achieve its ambitious goals. In 2007, a $35 million gift helped support the creation of the Riva and David Logan Center for the Arts; In 2008, a $300 million gift from alum David Booth supported and renamed the Graduate School of Business the Booth School of Business; In 2015, he donated $100 million to establish the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict and the Pearson Global Forum; In 2017, she made a $125 million gift to support the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics; In 2017, a $100 million gift founded the Duchossois Institute for the Family; In 2019, the $100 million Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) was launched; And in 2021, a $75 million gift launched the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Bringing molecular engineering to the University of Chicago is an example of Zimmer’s bold vision. Not only did the university create the nation’s first school dedicated to molecular engineering, but PME has taken UChicago’s distinguished approach to applied science by focusing on innovative ways to address complex societal problems–from health care to environmental sustainability to national security.

A host of faculty-led institutes and centers were established during Zimmer’s tenure, including the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC), the Institute for Policy, and the Mansueto Institute for Urban Development. Innovation, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, and the Institute for Knowledge Formation. The university has also deepened its engagement with its national laboratories – Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab – and in 2013 established a formal affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory. This has helped create new opportunities to advance domain-defining research and increase opportunities for students and faculty in innovative areas such as quantum technology, particle physics, and basic biology.

The university has created programs and fostered partnerships with the City of Chicago and with small businesses and organizations on the South Side. It has established five urban labs to address challenges across dimensions of urban life, including crime, education, health, economic opportunity, energy, and the environment. and helped revitalize the 53rd Park commercial corridor in Hyde Park, including the expansion of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the redevelopment of Harper Court. It revitalized the arts at UChicago with the creation of the Logan Center, the Arts Block on Garfield Boulevard, and the Gray Center for the Arts and Inquiry. UChicago Medicine also opened the first Level I Adult Trauma Center on Chicago’s South Side since 1991. Under Zimmer’s leadership, the university led the successful effort to bring the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side.

Pioneering mathematician

Born November 5, 1947, Zimmer grew up in Greenwich Village, New York City. Being in such a diverse place during the 1950s and 1960s, he said, made him feel “profoundly forgiving”.

“It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” Zimmer said. University of Chicago Journal In 2021, “with all these different people, with these different backgrounds and different kinds of everyday cultures — just awesome.”

As a young man, he wanted to be a doctor like his father – and began his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University majoring in physics until he turned his attention to mathematics. He received his BA from Brandeis University in 1968, MA and Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975, respectively.

Zimmer served on the faculty of the United States Naval Academy from 1975 to 1977 before joining the faculty at UChicago as an instructor of mathematics at L.E. Dickson in 1977. He has been a university faculty member and administrator for more than two decades, serving as chair of the mathematics department, university vice president, and vice president. Research and Argonne National Laboratory. Zimmer was named the Max Mason Distinguished Professor of Mathematics before leaving for Brown University in 2002 to become Dean and Professor of Mathematics at the Ford Foundation.

A leading mathematician, Zimmer specializes in areas of geometry, particularly ergodic theory, Lie groups and differential geometry. His work focused on group actions on manifolds and more general spaces, with applications to topology and geometry, in particular understanding the behaviors of quasi-simple Li groups and their discrete subgroups on differentiable manifolds and the structures on the manifold that these actions might preserve. His work on the types of symmetries that geometric spaces can exhibit became known as the Zimmer program, including the Zimmer conjecture on high-order lattices, which had been open for more than 30 years and finally solved in 2017.

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