Robert J. Zimmer, Who Promoted Free Speech on Campus, Dies at 75

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Robert J. Zimmer was a highly respected leader who was known for his unwavering commitment to promoting free speech on college campuses. He was a man of great integrity who believed that it was crucial for universities to create an environment that was open, inclusive, and tolerant of diverse perspectives. Unfortunately, Zimmer passed away on May 3, 2021, at the age of 75.

Zimmer was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. He received his undergraduate degree from Brandeis University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University. Throughout his career, Zimmer was known for his groundbreaking research in the field of mathematics, particularly in the areas of representation theory and automorphic forms.

However, Zimmer’s true passion was education. He believed that universities had a vital role to play in society as arbiters of knowledge and truth. As such, he was committed to ensuring that students had the freedom to learn and explore ideas without fear of censorship or retaliation.

Zimmer served as the president of the University of Chicago from 2006 to 2021. During his tenure, he implemented policies that underscored the importance of free speech and academic freedom. He believed that universities should be places where ideas could be debated and challenged, even if they were controversial or unpopular.

Under Zimmer’s leadership, the University of Chicago became known for its strong commitment to free speech. In 2015, the university released a statement titled “The Chicago Principles,” which affirmed its commitment to protecting free speech on campus. The statement declared that “the University of Chicago’s commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can avoid certain ideas.”

The Chicago Principles have since been adopted by numerous other universities across the United States. They have become a symbol of the importance of free speech and academic freedom in higher education.

Zimmer’s commitment to free speech was not without controversy. In 2017, the university invited conservative commentator Charles Murray to speak on campus. Murray’s views on race and intelligence had been widely criticized, and many students and faculty members protested his presence on campus. However, Zimmer refused to back down, stating that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Zimmer’s commitment to free speech was rooted in the belief that universities have a responsibility to create an environment where ideas can be debated and challenged. He believed that it was through this process of dialogue and debate that knowledge could be advanced and society could progress.

Zimmer’s commitment to free speech was not just limited to the University of Chicago. He was a strong advocate for free speech in higher education more broadly. In 2018, he co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times with Brown University President Christina Paxson, calling for universities to “endorse, protect and promote free expression and open inquiry.”

Zimmer’s legacy as a champion of free speech will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. His unwavering commitment to academic freedom and free speech has inspired countless individuals and institutions to defend these values. His leadership not only made the University of Chicago a global leader in higher education but also set an example for other universities to follow.

In a world where free speech is increasingly under threat, Robert J. Zimmer’s legacy will be remembered as a shining example of courage and conviction. He proved that it is possible to defend free speech, even in the face of strong opposition. And, in doing so, he demonstrated that universities have a vital role to play in safeguarding the free exchange of ideas and knowledge.