Robert J. Zimmer, Who Promoted Free Speech on Campus, Dies at 75

Robert J. Zimmer, a mathematician who as president of the University of Chicago not only quantitatively pushed for diversity in student and faculty recruitment, but also protected free speech on campus with a protocol that was later adopted by dozens of colleges. accepted. Malik died Tuesday at his home in Chicago. He was 75 years old.

His wife, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a classics professor at the university, said it was caused by glioblastoma multiforme, a dangerous form of brain cancer.

Mr. Zimmer, who presided over the university from 2006 to 2021, was instrumental in shepherding what is known as the university. Chicago RulesA set of guidelines suggested by the Committee on Free Expression, a faculty group he appointed in 2014.

Those guidelines have become a bulwark against what critics see as a suppression of academic freedom by colleges where students are able to protect themselves against inconvenient views — conduct that Often lumped together as “cancelling culture”.

The faculty committee concluded that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing down the discussion of ideas, however offensive or distasteful those ideas may be to some members of our community.” can.”

In August 2016, during Mr. Zimmer’s presidency, the Univ Notify new arrivals.: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics may prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can share their ideas and perspectives. Differences can backfire.”

Some campus critics suggested that Mr. Zimmer was motivated by complaints from conservative alumni. But, he said The Wall Street JournalResponding to a national trend, he was upholding the university’s traditional values.

“What you’re seeing is kind of a conversation,” he said. “You see actions by a lot of people that indicate that they feel they can actually legitimately suppress the expression of others whose views they fundamentally disagree with.”

Daniel Dermer, who was the university’s provost when Mr. Zimmer was its president and is now Vanderbilt University’s chancellor, said in an email: “Whether it’s controversy over speakers, policies on disruptive behavior or dedication to political causes, Refusal to use , the University of Chicago, under his leadership, stood firm in a turbulent time and a role model on freedom of expression worldwide.

Mr. Zimmer was an outstanding fundraiser. During his tenure as president, the university received six gifts of $100 million or more. He oversaw an increase in financial aid for undergraduates and the elimination of debt, to enable students to graduate debt-free.

He also started an engineering program. investment in graduate study in the humanities, social sciences and arts; Founded the Urban Education Institute, which operates a public school in Chicago and conducts research on instruction. 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’s West Village to Dr. Max Zimmer, a family practitioner, and Harriet (Brokaw) Zimmer, who managed her husband’s medical office.

Growing up in a diverse neighborhood, he learned the value of tolerance. Growing up in the McCarthy era, his son Benjamin said, “When there was a form of cultural oppression, when he saw it manifest from another direction, he thought it was something he had to stand up for. Should be, especially at a university where. That was part of its core ethos.”

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Brandeis University in 1968 and master’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975, respectively.

“I actually started college as a physics major,” Mr. Zimmer once admitted. “I switched to math after I spent 45 minutes trying unsuccessfully to get an oscilloscope to show a sine wave.”

As a mathematician and writer, 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. In 1980, he was named a full professor. He also taught at the University of California, Berkeley for two years.

At 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, Ill., which the university oversees. From 2002 to 2006, he was Professor of Mathematics and Provost at Brown University. He then returned as the 13th president of the University of Chicago.

In 1974, her marriage to Trace Schwartzman, former director of strategic initiatives at the Urban Education Institute, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Professor Bartsch Zimmer, director of the university’s Institute of Knowledge Formation whom he married in 2011, and his son Benjamin, the chief executive of a biotechnology firm, Mr. Zimmer are left behind. Two more sons from his first marriage: David, a lawyer, and Alex, a filmmaker. He is also survived by a 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 school year, while recovering from brain surgery, Mr. Zimmer resigned as president to become chancellor. He retired and was named Chancellor Emeritus in July 2022.

As a private institution, the University of Chicago had no obligation to abide by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. but, Brett Stephens In a 2017 New York Times opinion piece, the real issue with Mr. Zimmer’s case for free speech, offensive or offensive, was that it was “our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social indiscretion.”

According to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Zimmer rejected the idea that unbridled free speech would jeopardize the cause of inclusion because it might upset some, among others, who were trying to join.

“Involving what?” Mr. Zimmer expressed his surprise in a speech the same year. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students to challenge different ideas and evaluate their own assumptions? A world in which their emotions take precedence over other issues they face.” need?

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

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