Robert Zimmer: 2022 Centennial Medal Citation
It takes a uniquely distinguished leader to step up as a national champion for the core values of higher education while working tirelessly to expand and elevate one of the world’s great research universities. Over decades of leadership at the University of Chicago, including 15 years as president, Robert Zimmer has transformed an institution—and inspired widespread recommitment to the mission that all universities serve.
Zimmer completed his bachelor’s degree at Brandeis and earned his master’s in 1971 and PhD in 1975 in mathematics at Harvard. Two years later, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, serving as mathematics department chair, deputy provost, and vice president for research, and chairing the boards of Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi Research Alliance, and the Marine Biological Laboratory. He was appointed provost of Brown University in 2002 and returned to Chicago in 2006 as the university’s 13th president.
Zimmer is best known for his defense of free expression on college campuses. A prominent advocate for diversity of thought and challenging assumptions, he spearheaded the creation of the Chicago Principles, a set of guidelines articulating these values subsequently adopted by more than 80 other colleges and universities. But his accomplishments extend far beyond this. He succeeded in expanding the footprint of the University of Chicago in nearly every conceivable dimension—intellectually, geographically, and demographically.
“Harvard is enormously proud to claim Bob Zimmer as an alum,” says Larry Bacow, JD ’76, MPP ’76, PhD ’78, President of Harvard University. “His scholarship alone would have made him a worthy recipient of the Centennial Medal, but he went above and beyond—as anyone who knows him would expect—to make remarkable contributions as president of the University of Chicago. His leadership has shaped American higher education and changed the futures of countless individuals, an outstanding legacy that will echo through generations.”
In mathematics, Zimmer is renowned for his work on a research program known as the Zimmer program, which introduced new connections between different areas of math. In a recent forward to his selected papers, Zimmer’s former student David Fisher and collaborators Alex Lubotzky and Gregory Margulis describe his work as “not only timely but timeless.” In their words, “Robert Zimmer has a broad view of mathematics, looking to put mathematical ideas into their best context and most general, usable form and placing a high value on clearly blazing a trail that others can follow.”
[Robert Zimmer’s] leadership has shaped American higher education and changed the futures of countless individuals, an outstanding legacy that will echo through generations.
—Harvard University President Larry Bacow, PhD ’78
During his presidency, Zimmer’s trailblazing influence was even more widely felt. He brought engineering to Chicago for the first time in its history and strengthened activities in entrepreneurship, innovation, the arts, computer science, and data science. “He ushered in a new era of the applied sciences and brought to life disciplines that historically were not part of the University of Chicago,” says Provost Ka Yee Lee, SM ’87, PhD ’92, who earned her degrees in applied physics at Harvard. “He also helped Chicago become a more global university focused on fostering research and education.” During his presidency, Chicago established new centers in Beijing, Delhi, and Hong Kong, expanding global collaborations and opportunities for students and faculty.
Meanwhile, Zimmer worked to make a University of Chicago education accessible to all admitted students, simultaneously transforming it into one of the highest ranked and most sought-after colleges in the nation. He launched the university’s Odyssey scholarship, which provides support and community to first-generation and lower-income students. When he retired as president and became chancellor in 2021, university trustees established the Zimmer Odyssey scholarship, the largest financial aid gift in Chicago’s history, to help sustain the program in his honor.
David Rubenstein, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, chair of Chicago’s Board of Trustees, and member of the Harvard Corporation, observes: “Bob is one of the most respected university presidents of his era. He has stood for the importance of freedom of expression on university campuses, and he led the transformation of the University of Chicago into its current strong, global reputation, fulfilling John D. Rockefeller’s initial hope for the university. It’s now a place that people from all over the world want to attend in great numbers. He understands the importance of providing an experience for students that will last them for the rest of their lives. He is a visionary.”
Robert Zimmer, for your superlative leadership of one of the world’s finest universities, and for your principled advocacy for the core mission and values of higher education on the national and global stage, we are proud to award you the 2022 Centennial Medal.
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