Robert J. Zimmer, a mathematician who, as president of the University of Chicago, championed diversity not only quantitatively, in student and faculty recruitment, but also in protecting free speech on campus with a protocol that was later adopted by dozens of colleges across the country, died Tuesday at his Chicago home. He was 75 years old.
His wife, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a classics professor at the university, said the cause was glioblastoma multiforme, a virulent form of brain cancer.
Mr Zimmer, who served as president of the university from 2006 to 2021, was instrumental in leading what has become known as the Chicago Principlesa set of guidelines recommended by the Committee on Free Expression, a group of professors he appointed in 2014.
These guidelines have become a bulwark against what critics perceive as the stifling of academic freedom by colleges where students can insulate themselves against uncomfortable viewpoints – practices that are often lumped together as “cultural of cancellation”.
“Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used to justify closing the discussion of ideas, no matter how offensive or distasteful those ideas may be to some members of our community,” the faculty committee concluded. .
In August 2016, under the chairmanship of Mr. Zimmer, the university informed incoming freshmen“We don’t support so-called trigger warnings, we don’t cancel guest speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we don’t condone the creation of safe intellectual spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Some campus critics have suggested that Mr. Zimmer was motivated by complaints from conservative alumni. But he said The Wall Street Journalresponding to a national trend, it defended the traditional values of the university.
“What you’re seeing is kind of a drift of discourse,” he said. “You see the actions of a lot of people that seem to indicate that they feel they can, in fact, legitimately stifle the expression of other people that they fundamentally disagree with.”
Daniel Diermeier, who was provost of the university when Mr Zimmer was president and is now chancellor of Vanderbilt University, said in an email: ‘Whether it’s controversies over speakers , policies on disruptive conduct or his refusal to use the endowment for political purposes, the University of Chicago, under his leadership, has remained committed to its principles in these volatile times and a model for free expression in the world.
Mr. Zimmer was a prodigious fundraiser. During his tenure as president, the university received six gifts of $100 million or more. He oversaw an increase in financial aid for undergraduate students and the elimination of loans, to allow students to graduate debt-free.
He also started an engineering program; invested in higher education in the humanities, social sciences and arts; established the Urban Education Institute, which operates a public school in Chicago and conducts educational research; and opened satellite campuses in Beijing, Hong Kong and Delhi, India.
Undergraduate college applications more than tripled to more than 32,000 in 2018 from less than 10,000 in 2006.
Robert Jeffrey Zimmer was born on November 5, 1947, in Manhattan to Dr. Max Zimmer, a family physician in the West Village, and Harriet (Brokaw) Zimmer, who ran her husband’s medical practice.
Growing up in a diverse neighborhood, he learned the value of tolerance. Having been brought up in McCarthy’s time, his son Benjamin said: ‘When there was a form of cultural suppression, when he saw a manifestation of it from another direction, he thought it was something he had to defend, especially in a university where it was part of his fundamental philosophy.
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Brandeis University in 1968 and master’s and doctoral degrees, both also in mathematics, from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975. .
“I actually started college majoring in physics,” Zimmer confessed. “I switched to math when I tried unsuccessfully for 45 minutes to get an oscilloscope to show a sine wave.”
As a mathematician and author, he specialized in “ergodic theory, Lie groups, and differential geometry,” according to an academic biography.
He taught at the United States Naval Academy from 1975 to 1977 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1977. He was named a full professor in 1980. He also taught for two years at the University from California to Berkeley.
In Chicago, he served as chairman of the mathematics department, vice provost for research, and vice president for research at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, which the university oversees. From 2002 to 2006, he was professor of mathematics and provost at Brown University. He then returned to the University of Chicago as its 13th president.
His 1974 marriage to Terese Schwartzman, the former director of strategic initiatives at the Institute of Urban Education, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Professor Bartsch-Zimmer, director of the university’s Knowledge Training Institute and whom he married in 2011, and his son Benjamin, a biotechnology company’s chief executive, Mr. Zimmer leaves in mourning two other sons from his first marriage: David, lawyer, and Alex, filmmaker. He is also survived by one brother, Richard B. Zimmer; his mother, Harriet (who is 104 and still lives in the West Village apartment where Mr. Zimmer grew up); and two grandchildren.
At the end of the 2021 academic year, while recovering from brain surgery, Mr Zimmer stepped down as president to become chancellor. He retired and was appointed Chancellor Emeritus in July 2022.
As a private institution, the University of Chicago was under no obligation to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But, Bret Stephens wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, the real crux of Mr. Zimmer’s advocacy of free speech, offensive or not, was that it was “our salvation against intellectual mediocrity and social ossification”.
According to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Zimmer balked at the idea that unfettered free speech would undermine the cause of inclusion because it might upset, among others, some of the people who sought to be included.
“Inclusion in what? Mr. Zimmer had wondered in a speech that year. “An inferior and less demanding education? One that does not prepare students to challenge different ideas and evaluate their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other issues that need to be faced?
For Mr. Zimmer, the mathematician, that kind of education wouldn’t count.