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Board elects Brown provost as 13th U of C president

The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the nomination for Robert Zimmer, Brown University provost, to succeed Don Randel as the 13th president of the University at a board meeting Friday morning.

“Today is about change, and change being a healthy and good thing, we move on to the Zimmer era,” said chair of the board James Crown after recognizing Randel at a press conference following the board meeting.

The decision finalizes a seven-month search by a committee of board members and faculty representatives.

“With respect to leadership, we’ve found our man,” Crown said.

Chicago is familiar territory for Zimmer, who was an administrator and faculty member at the University for more than 20 years—most recently as vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory—before leaving in 2002 to become provost at Brown.

“The values of this University in particular have really stayed with me in everything I’ve done,” Zimmer said.

Pointing to Zimmer’s work as a mathematician, Robert Pippin, the chair of the faculty advisory committee to the Presidential Search Committee, said: “We want someone—we need someone—to be a representative of the academic values of the University.”

Randel, who is also a professor in music, welcomed Zimmer and quipped: “The trustees have planned a transition that is guaranteed to be the smoothest of all possible transitions because—as I’m sure you’re all aware—there was a time when music and mathematics were essentially the same science. So we will look to Pythagoras to guarantee that in fact the transition is utterly seamless.”

In his acceptance speech, Zimmer talked about his “high aspirations” for the University, highlighting community involvement and financial aid as two priorities.

“I think the University cannot consider itself in isolation—both in terms of being a neighbor and being a citizen,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also emphasized the importance of the University’s relationship to Argonne. The University is currently undergoing a Department of Energy bidding process to retain stewardship of the research facility.

“Argonne is, I believe, something that represents both a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to the University,” Zimmer said.

The homecoming welcome continued into the evening with a 6:30 p.m. reception in Hutch Commons, where students and faculty mingled with the president-elect.

Vice president and dean of students in the University Steve Klass took the podium and welcomed Zimmer “back home to Hyde Park” in front of a packed room and a buffet of sandwiches and pizzas.

Zimmer began his remarks by talking about the U of C’s role in fostering his career in mathematics, adding that the University has an important perspective on education.

“The key is to have a faculty that’s deeply devoted to the curriculum and making sure students are equally as committed to making [the curriculum] work,” Zimmer said. “I understand what this University is about.”

Before concluding his formal address to begin talking to students, Zimmer emphasized his eagerness to return to campus.

“When I get here, I will look forward to meeting many more of you,” he said.

During the hour and a half of photo opportunities and mixing with the crowd afterwards, Zimmer was approached by students from all academic backgrounds in the University.

Jadine Collingwood, a third-year art history concentrator in the College, asked the president-elect of his goals regarding the University’s attention to performance arts in the academic curriculum.

“The U of C has been involved in a very systematic way in enhancing the undergraduate educational experience,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer was then asked about his tastes in music.

“I listen to classical music,” he said. “I’m something of a traditionalist, but I like Bach.”

The bulk of student questions, however, focused on Zimmer’s experience at Brown in comparison to his future goals at the U of C.

“Chicago’s a very different place,” Zimmer said. “It’s to remain a very different place…There’s no reason that every institution has to be the same.”

Zimmer also answered questions concerning his stance toward the College’s Core curriculum.

“Students are [at a college] because they’ve chosen that curriculum,” he said. “It’s clear what that history has been here at Chicago, in retaining the very distinctive position in that educational landscape.”

A self-described product of the New York City public schools system, Zimmer touched on student questions regarding the University’s relationship to its surrounding neighborhoods.

“I am very positive about the way the University has been approaching it,” he said, adding that he hopes local business will benefit from the University’s continued investments on campus.

Alexander Belyi, a first-year math concentrator in the College, reflected on his brief conversation with the future president.

“I like his point of view on the Core, and maybe the University will see more emphasis on math, physics,” Belyi said, commenting on Zimmer’s previous work to strengthen the connection between Argonne National Laboratory and the U of C.

Belyi added that he and his fellow math concentrators had taken a particular liking to Zimmer’s mathematics background in the presidential post.

“All the math majors have been pretty excited,” Belyi said. “It’s nice to know that us math geeks are not alone.”

With Hutch Commons nearly empty and Zimmer’s last few responses to the handful of students still remaining, Klass described the event as productive for both students and administrators.

“The energy in the room was amazing, especially for Friday of 10th week,” Klass said. “I was really surprised to see so many students.”

Klass added that much of day’s activities revolved around similar personal meetings with various University members.

“Personal contact is what it’s all about,” he said.

Zimmer will officially become president of the University on July 1, 2006, with intermittent campus visits scheduled until then as he finalizes his remaining duties at Brown. A presidential inauguration is expected in the fall.