Historic tenure increased University’s scholarly eminence, created new educational opportunities and broadened impact
Robert J. Zimmer made historic contributions to enhance the University of Chicago’s scholarly eminence, transformative education and positive impact in the world during his 15 years as president. One of the nation’s leading figures in higher education, Zimmer was globally recognized for his long-term advocacy for free expression as a defining priority of universities.
Zimmer, who served as the University’s 13th president from 2006 to 2021, died May 23 at age 75. Zimmer had transitioned to the role of chancellor in September 2021 following surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor and became chancellor emeritus on July 1, 2022.
His time as president will be remembered as one of the longest and most impactful in the University’s 133-year history. Zimmer led the expansion of educational access and financial support for students in addition to producing an enduring legacy of ambitious programs and initiatives at the University of Chicago, including establishing the University’s first engineering program; expanding the University’s global presence through new centers in Beijing, Delhi and Hong Kong; greatly increasing work in civic engagement, including partnerships with the city of Chicago and organizations on the South Side; and making broad investments in programs and facilities in the arts.
“Chancellor Emeritus Zimmer was among the most effective and influential university presidents of his time,” wrote David M. Rubenstein, chair of the Board of Trustees, and President Paul Alivisatos in a message to the University community. “His tenure will be remembered for his strategic brilliance in bringing about changes for the long-term benefit of the University community.”
Zimmer spent nearly four decades at the University as a faculty member and administrator. A pioneering mathematician, he most recently served as the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Mathematics and the College.
“Bob made a remarkable impact as a University leader and scholar in our intellectual community for the past 40 years,” said Ka Yee C. Lee, who served as provost under Zimmer. “It was a great privilege to serve as provost with Bob, whose bold and visionary leadership was so instrumental in elevating the University as one of the world’s leading research institutions. He was a wonderful leader and colleague, and his innovations will benefit our University and community for many years to come.”
Upholding the University’s enduring values
Zimmer became the University’s 13th president on July 1, 2006, after serving as provost of Brown University. Returning to the place where he spent much of his academic career, Zimmer said that his core responsibility would be to ensure the University realized its enduring values—and not allow the University to become complacent.
“Enduring values have been the guide to action, not a sanctuary for complacency,” Zimmer said in his inaugural address. “Enduring values have not been, and should not be, confused with enduring answers.”
One of the values that defined Zimmer’s time as president was the deep importance of free expression in higher education—which he championed at a time when the role of free expression was being widely challenged.
Zimmer believed deeply in the power of education to change the trajectories of families. One of his first achievements as president was helping the University launch the Odyssey Scholarship Program, which provided financial aid for students in the greatest need and allowed many first-generation students to attend college.
In 2014 Zimmer appointed the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which created what became known as the “Chicago Principles,” a resounding declaration of commitment to free expression. The Chicago Principles have been extremely influential in higher education, including partial or full adoption by more than 80 colleges and universities around the country. Through speeches, public appearances and op-eds, Zimmer advocated for the free exchange of ideas as necessary for faculty and students to examine any issue they choose, and to engage with a wide range of perspectives. Zimmer’s leadership on free expression led The New York Times in 2017 to call him “the most essential voice” in academia and “America’s best university president.”
“Fundamentally, people are very comfortable with free expression for those that they agree with. And for those that they find disagreeable or wrong, they’re not that eager to have people be able to hear them,” Zimmer said in a 2021 interview. “The whole point of education is focused around ongoing intellectual challenge and open discourse.”
Zimmer’s legacy also includes developing an extraordinary group of future leaders. More than a half-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.
An unprecedented legacy
Less than a year after he took office, the University in 2007 announced a $100 million gift from an anonymous alumni donor dubbed “Homer,” which created the Odyssey Scholarship Program to support financial aid for students in the greatest need.
In addition to Odyssey, which allowed many first-generation students attend college, the University created initiatives that benefited students of all backgrounds, which since 2005 has led to a 300 percent increase to undergraduate applications. In 2021 the University launched a new $200 million commitment to educational access and financial aid, through a gift from the Board of Trustees, in honor of Zimmer.
“Bob Zimmer was a leader of prodigious energy, vision, and visceral impatience with status quo thinking,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “He had a fierce sense of the power of the University’s cultural identity and reputation and its historic distinctiveness within the world of American higher education, coupled with an urgent insistence that the University not fall into complacency by neglecting its own possibilities for further excellence.”
Under Zimmer’s leadership, the University received major philanthropic support to advance its ambitious goals. In 2007, a $35 million gift helped support the creation of the Reva 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 as the Booth School of Business; in 2015, a $100 million donation established The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum; in 2017, a $125 million gift supported the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics; in 2017, a $100 million gift established the Duchossois Family Institute; in 2019, a $100 million launched the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME); and in 2021, a $75 million gift launched the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.
Bringing molecular engineering to UChicago exemplified Zimmer’s bold vision. Not only did the University create the first school in the nation dedicated to molecular engineering, but PME took a distinctly UChicago 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 at Chicago (EPIC), the Institute of Politics, the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, and the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, and the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. The University also deepened its engagement with its affiliated national laboratories—Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab—and in 2013 established a formal affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory. This helped create new opportunities to drive field-defining research and increase opportunities for students and faculty in innovative fields such as quantum technology, particle physics and fundamental biology.
The University established programs and strengthened partnerships with the city of Chicago and with small businesses and organizations on the South Side. It created five Urban Labs to address challenges across dimensions of urban life, including crime, education, health, economic opportunity, and energy and environment. It helped revitalize Hyde Park’s 53rd Street commercial corridor, including the expansion of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the redevelopment of Harper Court. It revitalized the arts at UChicago through the creation of the Logan Center, the Arts Block on Garfield Boulevard, and the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. UChicago Medicine also opened the first level 1 adult trauma center on the South Side of Chicago since 1991. Under Zimmer’s leadership, the University led the successful effort to bring the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side.
A pioneering mathematician
Born Nov. 5, 1947, Zimmer grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He said being in such a diverse place during the 1950s and ‘60s made him feel “tolerance in a deep way.”
“It was super interesting and so much fun,” Zimmer told the University of Chicago Magazinein 2021, “with all these different people, with these different backgrounds and different kinds of quotidian cultures—just totally great.”
As a young man, he wanted to become a physician like his father—and began his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University majoring in physics until he turned his attention to mathematics. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in 1968 and a master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975, respectively.
Zimmer served on the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1975 to 1977 before joining the UChicago faculty as an L.E. Dickson Instructor of Mathematics in 1977. He was a University faculty member and administrator for more than two decades, serving as chairman of the Department of Mathematics, deputy provost, and vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory. Zimmer held the title of Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor of Mathematics before leaving for Brown University in 2002 to become provost and the Ford Foundation Professor of Mathematics.
A pioneering mathematician, Zimmer specialized in the fields 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, particularly understanding the actions of semisimple Lie groups and their discrete subgroups on differentiable manifolds and the structures on the manifold that these actions may preserve. His work on the types of symmetries that geometric spaces can exhibit became known as the Zimmer program, including Zimmer’s conjecture concerning higher-rank lattices, which was open for over 30 years and was finally resolved in 2017.
One of the values that defined Zimmer’s tenure was the deep importance of free expression. Through speeches, public appearances and op-eds, Zimmer advocated for the free exchange of ideas as necessary for faculty and students to engage with a wide range of perspectives.
Zimmer authored four books: Ergodic Theory and Semisimple Groups (1984), Essential Results of Functional Analysis (1990), Ergodic Theory, Groups and Geometry (2008), and Group Actions in Ergodic Theory, Geometry and Topology: Selected Papers (2019).
Zimmer was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a former member of the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. He also served on the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science and on the Board of Mathematical Sciences of the National Research Council.
In 2011, Zimmer married Prof. Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a faculty member at the University of Chicago. She recalled the “extraordinary happiness” of their marriage—and their work together in support of the University. “Bob was brilliant, driven, charismatic, visionary, fearless, tireless and a compass for me in my own life. Life with him was transformative.”
Zimmer is survived by Bartsch-Zimmer, director of the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge and the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics; and by three sons Alex, Benjamin and David, from his previous marriage to Terese Schwartzman.
—This story from UChicago News includes material first published by the University of Chicago Magazine.