When Robert J. Zimmer became president of the University of Chicago in 2006, he came to the Board of Trustees with a set of priorities and one overriding message: A great university is never good enough. Complacency is enemy number one.
For all its achievements, the University could not rest on its laurels—or its laureates. It had to keep moving ahead. “We had to be ambitious,” he says, “and we had to take a more outward look at how we interact with and affect the world at large, whether that involves scholarship, societal issues, policy, science and its impact, or the nature of the students that we’re able to attract.”
Doing well after surgery last spring to remove a malignant brain tumor, Zimmer is now preparing to transition to the role of chancellor on Sept. 1, when Paul Alivisatos, AB’81, currently provost of the University of California, Berkeley, is set to assume the presidency.
That the University has become more engaged with the world during Zimmer’s 15 years as president is beyond question. The College has become more accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering has brought applied science to campus in a big way, and the University has strengthened its ties to the South Side and around the globe. For a school known for its excellence in theory, these are decidedly practical achievements.
Nevertheless, if Zimmer has positioned the University to face more outward, he has done so by looking inward to its own principles and history. Indeed, he has staked his leadership on a commitment to the University’s abiding values—most prominently, freedom of expression. Already in his 2006 inaugural convocation address, he said that his “core responsibility” was “to ensure that the University realizes its enduring values and fundamental principles in the most powerful and lasting way possible.”
Zimmer says that one of his proudest achievements as president is bringing molecular engineering to campus. As he is quick to point out, however, “there’s very little one can do all by oneself.”
“When Bob left to be provost at Brown, I told him that I hoped we would one day see him back at the University of Chicago,” says Trustee Tom J. Pritzker, MBA’76, JD’76. That was in 2002. When Zimmer returned to become the University’s 13th president, Pritzker says, they met at a cocktail party where they first discussed Zimmer’s idea for bringing a novel kind of engineering to the University. “That chance meeting led the two of us to partner on a wonderful decade-long journey.”
Today the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering represents a distinctly UChicago approach to applied science, comprising innovative programs in immunoengineering, quantum information science and technology, new materials for sustainability, and other areas that have the potential to transform health care, industry, environmental sustainability, and national security. A key moment for Pritzker Molecular Engineering was in 2019, when the Institute for Molecular Engineering, first founded in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory in 2011, was elevated to the status of a school and named in honor of the Pritzker Foundation.