Date May 25, 2023
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Passages: Former provost and professor of mathematics Robert J. Zimmer

Known as a distinguished mathematician, academic leader and champion for freedom of expression, the former Brown provost and University of Chicago president died on May 23.

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.”

Colleagues from Brown remember Zimmer as an intellectually curious person who’d often host dinners and invite people to stay long after the end of the meal to ask people about their interests. He was seen as a colleague of great integrity who had a quiet, but authoritative presence that helped inspire people.

Kertzer remembers asking Zimmer for advice when he was tapped by Simmons to succeed him as provost. After listening to Kertzer’s questions about qualifications needed for the role, Zimmer helped him recognize the relevant skills and experiences he’d bring to the position and encouraged him to take it on: “That was the kind of can-do attitude that he had,” Kertzer said. “When he had faith in people, he really was 100 percent behind them.”

As a mathematician, Zimmer authored two books and more than 80 research articles. He specialized in geometry, particularly in ergodic theory and Lie theory. His insights into the intersection of the two theories and the types of symmetries that geometric spaces can exhibit created a mathematical research area known as Zimmer’s program. During his first year as provost, he taught a graduate class on the subject.

Though a pioneer in math, Zimmer held deep interests beyond it, especially as an academic leader. Michael Steinberg, who was the inaugural director of the Cogut Institute, remembers many conversations with Zimmer about the importance of the humanities at Brown.

“Something he really understood was that the humanities work on at least two levels — one being focused on cultural heritage and human interest and values, and the other focused on scholarly work that has the same scientific status as the natural or social sciences,” Steinberg said. “Therefore, he really wanted the humanities center to work on both of those levels. He made it very clear that he wanted it to be a hub and an intellectual destination for interesting programs not only for the humanities, but across the University.”

Zimmer was a prominent advocate for freedom of expression and diversity of thought on college campuses, and he strongly believed that the free exchange of ideas is essential. His influence in this area can be seen across higher education as colleges and universities around the country adopted principles of free expression that were developed under his leadership at the University of Chicago.

In 2017, he and Paxson shared the stage at a Washington Post forum where they defended the role that academic freedom plays in advancing knowledge amid a nationwide debate over free speech on campuses.

“It’s simply impossible to have an education where students are gaining the types of skills they need in terms of understanding arguments, being able to advocate, and many other skills… it’s impossible to do that in an environment where one is not open to ongoing challenge, to argumentation, discourse and debate,” Zimmer said at the event.

Zimmer is survived by his wife, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and by sons Alex, Benjamin and David from his previous marriage to Terese Schwartzman.