PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Robert J. Zimmer, an esteemed mathematician who served as Brown University’s ninth provost and the University of Chicago’s 13th president, died on Tuesday, May 23, at age 75. Zimmer had transitioned to the role of chancellor in 2021 following surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor and became chancellor emeritus in July 2022, the University of Chicago reported in an obituary.
In a May 25 letter that shared the news with the Brown community, Brown President Christina H. Paxson called him an accomplished scholar of mathematics, a fierce proponent of free expression and a distinguished leader in higher education.
“Those who knew Bob personally valued his integrity, generosity and dedication to fulfilling the highest ideals of higher education…” Paxson said. “His impact and legacy at Brown are seen through his efforts to strengthen the foundation of research and teaching [and he] remained keenly interested in and supportive of Brown’s progress, even after he returned to the University of Chicago.”
Zimmer served as provost and a professor of mathematics at Brown from 2002 to 2006. His leadership was instrumental in the development of a 2004 strategic plan that guided the University’s growth for a decade.
“Many of the same things we continue to build on today have roots in Bob’s leadership,” said Russell Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy at Brown. “In tandem with former president Ruth Simmons, he helped to establish a strong foundation for what has now been almost two decades of investment in academic excellence and, in particular, increasing the impact of research locally, nationally and internationally. He was someone who cared deeply about the University, the work that he was doing and the people he worked with. His presence has been felt ever since he left in a very positive way.”
Born in 1947 and raised in New York City, Zimmer had early aspirations of becoming a physician until a frog dissection in high school turned him toward the physical sciences. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in 1968 and a master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and 1975.
He began his academic career as assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy later in 1975 and joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1977, where he would hold a number of academic leadership positions before ultimately becoming the university’s 13th president after his four years at Brown. During his 15 years as University of Chicago president, he elevated the university’s global presence, established the first engineering program and strengthened activities in entrepreneurship, innovation, the arts, computer science and data science. He also prioritized the expansion of educational access for first-generation and lower-income students and expanded civic engagement initiatives.
An accomplished higher education leader and scholar
In 2002, Zimmer became the first provost hired by Simmons. Their work to develop the Plan for Academic Enrichment set ambitious goals for faculty expansion, undergraduate financial aid, growth of the Graduate School, enhancement of the academic programs and research, improved facilities and the growth of initiatives and partnerships.
Zimmer focused in particular on how to strengthen an educational environment that integrated various fields of study. His leadership led to the launch of new initiatives including the Center for Computational Molecular Biology and the what is now the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. He helped to expand research opportunities for students through key partnerships, including with the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, and he led the development of new agreements between the Brown’s medical school and affiliated teaching hospitals.
“Much of his work was identifying strategic areas where Brown could become known as among the world leaders in certain academic areas of research and teaching,” said David Kertzer, a Brown professor of social science and anthropology who succeeded Zimmer as provost. “He was important in recognizing that many of the most cutting-edge areas of research and teaching are interdisciplinary rather than in departmental fiefdoms.”