Memorial reflects on Robert J. Zimmer’s historic impact on UChicago

Speakers highlight the visionary leadership of the former president and chancellor, whose legacy will “inspire for generations to come”

As the University of Chicago community, family, friends and former colleagues gathered Sept. 29 for a campus memorial to honor the late Robert J. Zimmer, many recalled how the former president’s inspired leadership helped UChicago uphold its enduring values and realize its ambitious goals.

“He recognized that the fundamental culture of this institution was our greatest strength, and that the most important work of any president would be to build upon it for the next generation to inherit,” said President Paul Alivisatos in his introductory remarks at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. “Bob knew that any great university could never rest on its laurels. He championed the idea that we should continuously push our boundaries, embrace change and strive for betterment.”

Zimmer served as UChicago’s 13th president from 2006 to 2021 and as chancellor from 2021 to 2022. A longtime member of the UChicago faculty, Zimmer was the Edwin A. and Betty I. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Mathematics and the College. He died May 23 at age 75.

Speakers at the memorial recounted Zimmer’s deep contributions to the University, remembering him as a fierce advocate for academic freedom and free expression, and as a visionary leader committed to enhancing UChicago’s scholarly eminence and impact in the world.

“As one of the most influential leaders this institution has ever known,” Alivisatos said, “it is certain that his legacy will reverberate and inspire for generations to come.”

Fierce defender of free expression

Zimmer’s advocacy of free expression was an important part of his legacy. Hanna Holborn Gray, who served as UChicago president from 1978 to 1993, recalled meeting with Zimmer many times early in his career, when he served as chair of the Department of Mathematics. “I have never encountered a more effective department head,” Gray said, “let alone a more ferocious advocate and defender of its interests.”

Those discussions grew into deeper conversations about the University, Gray said, including the importance of academic freedom and free expression. In 2014, as unpopular speech was being silenced and speakers were disinvited from universities, Zimmer established a committee that would develop what became known as “The Chicago Principles”—a declaration of commitment to free expression—with Zimmer as a leading advocate of its defense.

“As he took stock of this landscape, he identified the most urgent problems to be attacked, as having to do with the core requirements for outspoken leadership on behalf of universities in an era when too many heads were staying fixed firmly in the sand,” said Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History. “Bob’s head was always right where it belonged—raised with a gaze, fixed squarely on the proposition that it is in the best interests of our society to support the basic conditions of academic and intellectual freedom that make it possible for universities to achieve their principal purposes of education, investigation and creation of knowledge, and that these themselves provide an irreplaceable, social good.”

Prof. Geoffrey Stone, who chaired the committee that developed the Chicago Principles, remembered Zimmer as an “extraordinary president” and “critical national leader” around academic freedom. Today, the Chicago Principles have now been adopted by more than 100 colleges and universities across the country.

“Bob was truly a model across the nation in his advocacy of the most fundamental values of bold and potentially controversial research and debate in education,” said Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Professor in Law. “More than any other academic leader in our nation, Bob has been widely and rightly recognized as the most influential university leader in advocating for the protection of free expression and academic freedom in colleges and universities at a time of dangerous challenge.”

Devoted father, mentor and friend

Zimmer was a member of the UChicago community for nearly four decades, and in his remarks, his son David spoke about how much the University meant to father and his family. David also reflected upon Zimmer’s life beyond UChicago—sharing poignant stories of time spent together as a family—cheering the Chicago Bulls to an NBA championship, traveling across Turkey to chase a solar eclipse, and playing board games or reciting poetry.

He also recalled the lessons he learned from his father, a renowned mathematician whom David often came to for help on math homework—an exercise he called an “unmitigated disaster.” Instead of getting answers, David was annoyed to instead receive hours of rigorous analysis.

“It captured, I think, something special about my dad that I didn’t realize until later, which was that he was never satisfied just being told how to do something, what the way to do it was,” said Zimmer, a partner at Goodwin Procter Supreme Court and Appellate Practice. “He needed to know why you do it that way.”

Two of Zimmer’s former colleagues recalled the impact he had on their lives and careers.

When Katie Callow-Wright first joined the Office of the President at UChicago, she recognized that Zimmer was “exceedingly serious, sharply decisive and relentless in his vision” for the University. But in her time working for Zimmer, she recognized the investment he was making in her and others.

“To say that Bob took an interest in the development and future of people on his team is a dramatic understatement,” said Callow-Wright, who now serves as executive vice president at Princeton University. “It was like a mission for him to ensure that the people who worked around him would be exposed to challenges that would push us up towards the next steps of our careers—whether at Chicago or other institutions and organizations. When he saw talent in a person, he sought to bring it further to the surface, ensure it was carefully tended and harvested, and exposed other people to it in a way that led to important opportunities and contributions to the University.”

More than a half-dozen former UChicago administrators and deans who served under Zimmer have been appointed to lead universities and colleges. A number of those former UChicago leaders were in the audience for Zimmer’s memorial.

David Greene, the president of Colby College, served as executive vice president at UChicago under Zimmer. Greene talked about his deep friendship with Zimmer, which began when Greene recruited Zimmer to become provost at Brown University 20 years ago.

Greene recalled how he worked with Zimmer to help the University grow in myriad ways—from the opening of global centers in Asia to focusing on issues in the city of Chicago, including education, crime and health—initiatives which Zimmer viewed as critical to the University’s future.

“He really saw the greatness of the University as fragile. He was always concerned about what could happen,” Greene said. “He really did believe that the only way forward was to strengthen the distinctiveness of this great university, to connect it into the world in a deeper and more robust way.”

David M. Rubenstein, JD’73, chair of the Board of Trustees, reflected upon Zimmer’s impact—not just on the University of Chicago or higher education—but on the country. He hailed Zimmer as a “patriot” for his defense of free expression at UChicago and beyond.

“All of us want to do something in life that makes us feel we’ve done something to justify our existence in the face of the Earth. Bob did that: He took a great university and made it even greater,” Rubenstein said. “In many ways, Bob has shown himself to be a great patriot—a patriot who really did more for America than many people who serve in our government. And for that, I really am indebted to Bob because he’s made our country stronger.”

Rubenstein encouraged those in attendance to honor Zimmer by working to make the University and the country a better place.

“When there are challenges to academic freedom, stand up to them. When there are challenges to excellence, stand up to them. When you see a difficult problem, try to tackle it. Do not accept no for an answer. Accept yes, and get people to do what you think is best. That is what Bob Zimmer did.”