Robert Zimmer, the thirteenth president and third chancellor of the University of Chicago, passed away May 23, 2023, at age 75. Throughout his fifteen years as president, he secured funding for the Logan Center for the Arts, the Booth School of Business, the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, and more, in addition to establishing UChicago centers in faraway locales like Delhi and Hong Kong.
However, Zimmer’s most important legacy is his unwavering commitment to free expression and rigorous academic inquiry, which inspired many of us to matriculate at UChicago.
In 2014, amid a virulent plague of cancelations and coddling at colleges across the country, Zimmer stood for what is right and just. He impaneled a committee with a simple mandate: to “draft a statement reflecting the University’s commitment to and tolerance of multiple forms of free expression.”
The resultant document—commonly called the “Chicago principles”—recognizes “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate.” “[I]t is not,” Zimmer’s brainchild saliently declares, “the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
The concept underpinning the principles is clear. Free speech, as Zimmer’s 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed observes, allows students to “master how to recognize complexity, to argue effectively for their positions and to reconsider and challenge their own beliefs.”
The powerful implication of Zimmer’s defense of free speech is that protecting the right to examine and re-examine ideas encourages people to proactively seek the truth for themselves. This notion is reflective of the university’s motto: crescat scientia; vita excolatur (“let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched”).
The fruits of Zimmer’s labor speak for themselves. A 2017 New York Times opinion piece deemed Zimmer “America’s Best University President.” In 2018, the Journal ran an interview with Zimmer characterizing UChicago as “The Free-Speech University.” And in 2022, UChicago took the top spot on FIRE’s ranking of colleges by their policies on speech.
Thanks to Zimmer’s advocacy, many universities have decided that they want a slice of Hyde Park on their own campuses. More than 80 institutions, including Columbia, Georgetown, and Princeton, have adopted the Chicago principles.
Meanwhile, Zimmer upped UChicago’s enrollment and academic reputation, with the school rising from fifteenth to six in the U.S. News and World Report rankings during his tenure. All this shows—as Harvard Professor Steven Pinker puts it—“that a univ pres doesn’t have to choose between” academic freedom and university growth.
The Thinker is particularly indebted to Zimmer’s tireless endeavors and owes its conception to the dynamic academic environment he worked to establish. As our mission statement reiterates: “Some things are too sacred to surrender to the mob, and the free exchange of ideas is one of them.”
In following Zimmer’s footsteps, we aim to protect a uniquely UChicago academic tradition—one witnessed by past alumni, entrusted in the present, and to be realized by future Chicago scholars. It is this tradition of informed contrarianism and unfettered inquiry that attracted nearly 100 Nobel Laureates; produced groundbreakers like Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan, and John Paul Stevens; and gave the university its irreplaceable prestige.
Most important, we seek to continue Zimmer’s vision of an educational institution uninhibited by conformity or political expediency. He will always be our president.
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