Former University President Robert Zimmer Dies Aged 75

The president of the University between 2006 and 2021 served as chancellor emeritus before his passing Tuesday.


The University of Chicago

University President Robert Zimmer addresses the University community and class of 2020 graduates during the 533rd Convocation.

By Basil Egli

Former University president Robert Zimmer died today at age 75 following a battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Chair of the Board of Trustees David Rubenstein and University president Paul Alivisatos announced the news in an email to the University community Tuesday afternoon.

Zimmer is survived by his wife, Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, as well as three sons—Alex, Benjamin, and David—by former spouse Terese Schwartzman. In his email, Rubenstein wrote that the University would share information “in the near future” on a memorial service for Zimmer.

Zimmer served as the 13th president of the University of Chicago between July 2006 and September 2021, when he stepped down from the role because of complications from surgery on a malignant brain tumor.

After his successor, current president Paul Alivisatos, took office, Zimmer assumed the position of chancellor before becoming chancellor emeritus on July 7, 2022, after experiencing further health issues.

 Zimmer was a renowned advocate for free intellectual discourse and famously appointed the committee that drafted the widely disseminated Chicago principles in 2014.

Born November 5, 1947, Zimmer grew up in Greenwich Village in New York. He wanted to become a physician like his father, until a frog dissection in high school convinced him to pursue chemistry and physics instead.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brandeis University in 1968 and a doctoral degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1975, Zimmer taught mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy for two years before moving to the University of Chicago in 1977.

He then became a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, between 1981 and 1983 before returning to UChicago for a second spell.

Alongside his duties as a mathematics professor at UChicago, Zimmer served as department chair, deputy provost, and vice president for Argonne National Laboratory. Zimmer served as provost at Brown University from 2002 to 2006 before returning to UChicago for a third and final time to become its 13th president on July 1, 2006.

As a mathematician, Zimmer concentrated on geometry, specifically studying complex symmetries and repetitions. Zimmer’s conjecture, a statement outlined by Zimmer concerning the existence of symmetries in various dimensions, remained unsolved for more than 30 years until researchers from Indiana University and UChicago proved it in 2017.

During his tenure, the University received an unprecedented volume of donations, leading to the establishment of programs and schools such as the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Becker-Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society, and the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge.

Three of the University’s student housing complexes—Renée Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, Campus North Residential Commons, and Woodlawn Residential Commons—were completed during Zimmer’s tenure, as were several University construction projects in the Woodlawn community area.

In addition, Zimmer opened University centers in Beijing, Delhi, and Hong Kong.

After retiring as president and ascending to the position of chancellor, Zimmer continued his advocacy for free speech by helping found the University of Austin (UATX), a nonprofit organization seeking to establish an accredited undergraduate university “committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.” Zimmer resigned from UATX’s advisory board three days after the organization’s establishment after disagreeing with statements made by UATX about higher education.

“While the new organization’s commitment to a liberal arts education and free expression reflects topics that are very important to me…the new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views,” Zimmer said at the time.

Zimmer and Bartsch-Zimmer purchased a $3.3 million home in Lincoln Park on March 15. Zimmer was also to be presented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in a ceremony at Rockefeller Chapel in June.


Editor’s note: We hope to follow up on this article with a longer piece memorializing Zimmer’s life and his time as a member of the University community. We ask anyone who has memories they want to share to contact us at