Robert J. Zimmer, who promoted free speech on campus, dies at age 75

Robert J. Zimmer, a mathematician who, as president of the University of Chicago, championed diversity not only quantitatively, in recruiting students and faculty, but also protecting free speech on campus with a protocol that was later adopted by dozens of colleges across the country, died Tuesday at his home in Chicago. He was 75 years old.

His wife, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a professor of classics at the university, said the cause was glioblastoma multiforme, a virulent form of brain cancer.

Zimmer, who presided over the university from 2006 to 2021, was instrumental in guiding what became known as the Chicago Principles, a 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 are able to insulate themselves from uncomfortable viewpoints — practices that are often lumped together as “culture canceling.”

“Concerns for civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for ending discussion of ideas, however offensive or distasteful those ideas may be to some members of our community,” concluded the faculty committee.

In August 2016, during the presidency of Mr. Zimmer, the university informed freshmen: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel guest speakers because their topics may be controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectually safe spaces where individuals can withdraw from ideas and perspectives at odds with the their own”.

Some campus critics suggested that Zimmer was motivated by complaints from conservative alumni. But, he told The Wall Street Journal, in response to a national trend, he was championing the university’s traditional values.

“What you’re seeing is a kind of deviation from the discourse,” he said. “You see actions by many people that seem to indicate that they feel they can, in fact, legitimately stifle the expression of others whose opinions they fundamentally disagree with.”

Daniel Diermeier, who was the university’s dean when Zimmer was its president and is now the dean of Vanderbilt University, said in an email: “Whether it’s controversy over speakers, policies about disruptive conduct or his refusal to use the endowment for political purposes , the University of Chicago, under his leadership, remained committed to its principles during volatile times and a model of free speech around the world.”

Mr. Zimmer was a prodigious fundraiser. During his tenure as president, the university received six grants of $100 million or more. He oversaw the increase in financial aid for undergraduates and the elimination of loans as a way to allow students to graduate without debt.

He also started an engineering program; invested in graduate studies in humanities, social sciences and arts; established the Urban Education Institute, which operates a public school in Chicago and conducts literacy research; and opened satellite campuses in Beijing, Hong Kong and Delhi, India.

Undergraduate college applications more than tripled to over 32,000 in 2018 from less than 10,000 in 2006.

Robert Jeffrey Zimmer was born on November 5, 1947, in Manhattan, the son of Dr. Max Zimmer, a family physician in the West Village, and Harriet (Brokaw) Zimmer, who managed her husband’s medical practice.

Growing up in a diverse neighborhood, he learned the value of tolerance. Having been raised in the McCarthy era, his son Benjamin said, “when there was a form of cultural suppression, when he saw a manifestation of it from another direction, he thought that was something he should champion, particularly at a university where he was part of his faculty. fundamental ethos.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer received a BA in mathematics from Brandeis University in 1968 and an MA and Ph.D., both also in mathematics, from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975.

“I actually started college as a physics major,” Zimmer once 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 a university 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 of California, Berkeley.

At Chicago, he served as chairman of the mathematics department, vice dean 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 Dean of Brown University. He then returned to the University of Chicago as its 13th president.

His 1974 marriage to Terese Schwartzman, former director of strategic initiatives at the Urban Education Institute, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Professor Bartsch-Zimmer, who is director of the university’s Knowledge Training Institute and whom he married in 2011, and their son Benjamin, CEO of a biotechnology company, Zimmer is survived by two other children of first marriage: David, lawyer, and Alex, filmmaker. He is also survived by a brother, Richard B. Zimmer; his mother, Harriet (who is 104 years old and still lives in the West Village apartment where 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 comply with the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But, Bret Stephens wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech, offensive or not, was that it was “our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification.” .

According to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Zimmer rejected the notion that unrestricted freedom of expression would jeopardize the cause of inclusion because it might upset, among others, some of the people who sought to be included.

“Inclusion in what?” Mr. Zimmer wondered in a speech that year. “A lower, less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world where your feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

For Mr. Zimmer, the mathematician, that kind of education wouldn’t count.

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