Zimmer reflects on what matters to him, and why

By Mischa Fierer

University President Robert J. Zimmer spoke of his passion for both mathematics and universities yesterday as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” discussion series at Rockefeller Chapel.

“For me, life is a struggle against entropy,” Zimmer said, describing how the world’s “powerful tendency toward diffusion” requires human energy to ensure structure.

At the U of C, this principle creates an atmosphere in which openness and creativity are maintained, while emphasizing the University’s main goal of academic excellence, he said.

Apart from his family, Zimmer said that universities and mathematics matter to him most. The stress that the U of C places on the value of inquiry is important, he said.

“I’m interested in almost every problem,” Zimmer said. Drawing distinctions between the way he approaches his various interests, he said University administrative problems are goal-driven, while mathematical problems are not.

In mathematics, structures, such as the notion of distance, are “imposed on what is essentially the void,” Zimmer said. For him, the reward of imposing structures on entropy through mathematics is “aesthetic.”

“There are some difficulties about the accessibility of that aesthetic,” Zimmer said. Plane geometry, which he said was a favorite subject of many secondary school students who become disillusioned with later math classes, offers a glimpse into the aesthetic rewards of math that Zimmer said he enjoys.

For universities, Zimmer said he thinks that while it is important to maintain “a huge amount of openness,” it is imperative that administrators stick to a main structure, or goal.

Every decision made by university administrators needs to be weighed against the question of how the decision will affect the “academic excellence of the institution,” Zimmer said.

At Brown University, where Zimmer was provost from 2002 to 2006, there was “a lot of argument, a lot of discomfort” with that notion, Zimmer said, nonetheless promoting Brown’s qualities despite the differences in its academic philosophy from the U of C’s.

At the U of C, “you never, never have to have that argument,” Zimmer said, referring to how at other universities the goal of academic excellence often conflicts with other goals.

“I was always the ‘Chicago guy’” at Brown, Zimmer said. He said that Brown hired him in part to bring a University of Chicago perspective.

In response to a question about the U of C’s involvement with the community, Zimmer said that the U of C must consider the University’s strengths.

He gave as an example the U of C Hospitals, which he argued should remain a high-end academic institution rather than a “community hospital,” because it must remain connected to the University’s core goal of academic excellence.

“What is our comparative advantage in running a community hospital?” he asked.

If the University’s community initiatives, such as the charter school program, become “off-shore operations” that are disconnected from this goal, they will “wither over time,” Zimmer said.

One woman who identified herself as the parent of a prospective undergraduate student asked Zimmer how his ideas related to student life at the U of C.

“It’s very different from going to a place where it’s a hand-holder, ‘you’re great’ environment,’” Zimmer said.

While the U of C does not aim to hold students’ hands, it does aim to empower students who take academics seriously, he said.

“You can have an argument with someone who has won the Nobel prize, and they will take you seriously,” Zimmer said. He added that the U of C is not welcoming to the notion, “I’m smart, you should pay attention,” and instead emphasizes the value of an argument rather than the status of the person making it.

“For students, the infectiousness of this environment is very palpable,” he said.