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America’s Best University President Has Died

Robert J. Zimmer championed free expression of ideas and enriched lives.

Key points

  • After 15 years as President of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer has died of brain cancer.
  • On matters of free speech and open inquiry on campus, Zimmer was a courageous and determined leader.
  • According to surveys, faculty fear losing their jobs or reputations due to their speech, and many self-censor.
  • Using violence to stop speech is more acceptable to younger than older faculty.
Source: Photo by Pamela Paresky
Robert J. Zimmer, chancellor emeritus of the University of Chicago
Source: Photo by Pamela Paresky

On May 23, 2023, Robert J. Zimmer, chancellor emeritus of the University of Chicago, passed away. His wife, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, eminent classics scholar and director of the university's Institution on the Formation of Knowledge, was by his side throughout the course of the virulent brain cancer that took his life.

For 15 years, as president of the University of Chicago, Zimmer was peerless in his unwavering dedication to protecting academic freedom and free speech. He was also widely acclaimed for elevating the university’s standing as one of the country's most highly selective, making education more accessible to a diverse group of students, and developing leaders in higher education.

In 2014, Zimmer appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression, headed by legal scholar Geoffrey Stone, to formalize the principles that underpin the university’s longstanding commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community. “Although the University greatly values civility,” the committee concluded, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

During Zimmer's presidency, the Chicago Principles were championed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) as a model of institutional commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. By the time Zimmer became Chancellor in 2021, more than 80 schools had adopted some version of what became known as the Chicago Statement.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer insisted that universities “cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments.” Having one’s assumptions challenged, he argued, “and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education.”

This expectation has decreased over time. “As younger faculty replace older faculty and more women join their ranks,” a new report from FIRE suggests, “the conditions for campus free expression may continue to deteriorate.” Younger faculty are more willing to allow censorship than older faculty, and when forced to choose between free speech and inclusion and diversity, 61% of male college students chose free speech while only 35% of female students did.

According to a 2022-23 survey of almost 45,000 undergraduates conducted by FIRE and College Pulse, some of the worst speech climates are found at highly selective, elite institutions. Of the 208 colleges and universities included, Columbia University, which for the past 20 years has been led by free speech legal scholar Lee Bollinger, ranks dead last—with a rating of “abysmal.” Not far behind are the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Yale, and Northwestern.

The University of Chicago ranks first.

An alarmingly high proportion of American faculty say they fear losing their jobs or reputations due to their speech: 72% of conservatives, 56% of moderates, and 40% of liberals. Today, a higher proportion of faculty are afraid to speak their mind than even during McCarthyism.

“At the end of the Second Red Scare in 1955,” according to FIRE, “9% of social scientists said they toned down their writing for fear of causing controversy.” Today, 25% of faculty say they’re “very or extremely likely to self-censor in academic publications,” and more than 33% say the same about their interviews or lectures. The fear that expressing unpopular opinions might result in being fired or ostracized creates an ideological monoculture—a “cancel culture”—understood to exact a heavy price for disfavored views, research, or academic interests.

In contrast, Zimmer maintained that the best education required not only a climate of rigorous debate and open inquiry among faculty but that all students from every background be “fully included in open discourse, challenge, free expression, and argumentation.” It is “misguided,” he insisted, to think that protecting students from such discourse helps them. This misguided view presents a “major problem” for students who have experienced marginalization, he argued. “It is in fact just the opposite that should be happening... We should not be facilitating retreat and separation from the most enriching education we can provide.”

But while administrative support is necessary, it is insufficient to create a campus free speech culture. Even at the University of Chicago, there have been efforts to disinvite speakers and sanction professors for their protected speech. In response to one professor’s criticism of his department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies, Zimmer reaffirmed his position:

We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of university policy or the law. Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

Of course none of this is simple or easy. And there is a short distance between a university that shields students from intellectual discomfort and one that prevents scholars from engaging in a free exchange of ideas, investigating controversial subjects, publishing distasteful findings, and speaking freely. Withstanding the immense pressure to create censorious campus policies and norms takes a courageous leader. Robert Zimmer was singularly so. As the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board eulogized, “we can think of a few current university presidents who could use a dose of Zimmer spinal fluid.”

The University of Chicago's coat of arms reads crescat scientia; vita excolatur. “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” Robert J. Zimmer did that with courage, compassion, and a profound understanding of the value of curiosity. His legacy appears to include inspiring his successor, Paul Alivisatos, to follow in his footsteps. If we are lucky, it will include inspiring many other current and future university presidents to do the same.

More from Pamela B. Paresky Ph.D.
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