Free speech advocate on campus, Robert J. Zimmer, dies at 75

Robert J. Zimmer was a mathematician who, as president of the University of Chicago, supported diversity not only in numbers, in student and faculty recruitment, but also through an Accepted the agreement to protect free speech on campus died Tuesday at his home in Chicago. He is 75 years old.

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

Mr Zimmer served as chancellor of the university from 2006 to 2021, where he led what became known as the Chicago Principlesa set of guidelines recommended by the faculty body’s Free Expression Committee, which he appointed in 2014.

The guidelines have become a bulwark against what critics see as a stifle of academic freedom at universities where students are able to insulate themselves from disturbing views — practices often collectively referred to as “cancel culture.”

“Concerns about civility and mutual respect should never be a reason to stop discussing ideas, however offensive or objectionable those ideas may be to some members of our community,” the Faculty Council concluded.

In August 2016, during Mr. Zimmer’s presidency, the University Inform new students: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics may be controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectually safe spaces where individuals can learn from ideas and viewpoints that do not align with their own Back off.”

Some campus critics believe Mr. Zimmer was motivated by complaints from conservative alumni.However, he told wall street journalin response to national trends, he upholds the traditional values ​​of the university.

“What you’re seeing is a discourse drift,” he said. “You see a lot of people behaving as though they feel they can actually legitimately stifle the expression of other people whose views they don’t share at all.”

“Whether it’s a controversy about the speaker, about the From his policy of disruptive behavior to his refusal to use the endowment for political purposes, the University of Chicago under his leadership has stood by its principles through turbulent times and has become a model for free speech around the world.”

Mr. Zimmer is a terrific fundraiser. During his presidency, the university received six gifts of $100 million or more. He oversaw increased financial aid for undergraduates and eliminated loans as a way for students to graduate debt-free.

He also initiated an engineering program; invested in graduate study in the humanities, social sciences, and arts; founded the Institute for Urban Education, which operates a public school in Chicago and conducts research on teaching; and opened schools in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Delhi, India satellite campus.

The number of applicants to undergraduate institutions has more than tripled, from fewer than 10,000 in 2006 to more than 32,000 in 2018.

Robert Jeffrey Zimmer was born in Manhattan on November 5, 1947, to Dr. Max Zimmer, a West Village family physician, and Harriet (Bro test) Zimmer (Harriet (Brokaw) Zimmer).

Growing up in a diverse community, he learned the value of tolerance. His son Benjamin, who grew up in the McCarthy era, said, “When there is a form of cultural repression, when he sees that form in another direction, he thinks that’s something he should support, especially It’s part of the fundamental ethos of being in a university.”

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Zimmer earned a BA in Mathematics from Brandeis University in 1968, and an MS and PhD in Mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975.

“I actually started college as a physics major,” Mr. Zimmer once confessed. “When I tried unsuccessfully for 45 minutes to get the oscilloscope to display a sine wave, I turned to math.”

As a mathematician and author, he specialized in “ergodic theory, Lie groups, and differential geometry,” according to the university biography.

He taught at the US Naval Academy from 1975 to 1977 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1977. He was appointed full professor in 1980. He also taught for two years at UC Berkeley.

In Chicago, he served as chair 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 is overseen by the university. 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.

In 1974, his marriage to Terese Schwartzman, former director of strategic initiatives at the Urban Education Institute, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Prof. Bartsch-Zimmer, director of the University’s Institute for Knowledge Formation, whom he married in 2011, and his son Benjamin, CEO of a biotechnology company, Mr. Zimmer is alive and well in his first Two other sons from this marriage: David, a lawyer, and Alex, a film producer. His brother, Richard B. Zimmer, is also survived. his mother, Harriet (now 104, who still lives in the West Village apartment where Mr. Zimmer grew up); and two grandchildren.

At the end of the 2021 school year, Zimmer is recovering from brain surgery and resigning as principal to become principal. He retired and was named Chancellor Emeritus in July 2022.

As a private institution, UChicago is under no obligation to abide by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. but, Brett Stephens Writing in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Mr. Zimmer argued that the real crux of free speech, offensive or not, was “our liberation from intellectual mediocrity and social rigidity.”

According to Mr Stephens, Mr Zimmer was hesitant to argue that unfettered free speech would jeopardize the cause of inclusion because it might upset some people who seek to be included.

“Incorporate into what?” Mr. Zimmer asked in a speech that year. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of thinking differently and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world where their feelings take precedence over other things that need to be confronted? “

For the mathematician Mr. Zimmer, this education doesn’t count.

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