Zimmer: Who is he, and what does he want for the University? Meeting the man behind the presidency

By Barney Keller

Robert J. Zimmer, the new University president who’s been under fire from campus “politicians” for refusing to divest from Darfur and from campus nerds for changing the admissions process, has something in common with a lot of his critics. He’s a passionate believer in social justice. And he loves math.

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, “I used to spend a lot of time in the library studying because I loved it; I loved learning about math. That’s not to say that I didn’t go see live music and go to the movies with my friends, but I loved studying, and I think a lot of students here do too,” Zimmer said.

Meet the person behind all the controversy, who sat down with me last week in his elegant office, with large bookcases packed with science and math books, for an extended interview. A native of New York, Zimmer came to the U of C after a few years as provost at Brown, where the student body was recently named the nation’s happiest by Princeton Review. So far, the same can’t be said of some U of C students. Students here have criticized the decision by the Board of Trustees not to divest from Sudan, and some blame Zimmer for it. They say he didn’t communicate well enough about change to the Common Application. Some even call him “aloof.”

Zimmer, is down-to-earth, likes vodka martinis with multiple olives (“as many as will fit”), and roots for the Cubs on the South Side. I didn’t ask him about Darfur as I felt as though that topic had been over-examined, and despite accusations to the contrary, it seemed to me that he’d answered everyone’s questions.

On the Common App controversy, Zimmer said his stance is not an effort to change the character of the student body. “That is very definitely not the purpose,” he said. “The admissions office is focused on bringing students here who are the most appropriate for Chicago. They have been doing this very well for years. Michael Behnke and the admissions office are the experts who are generating the best ways to attract those students who can best contribute to and benefit from the special intellectual environment at Chicago. They came to me and told me this was the best thing to do for Chicago, and I asked them the pros and cons and I said OK. But they’re the experts…. There are plenty of students who would be great for Chicago who are in disadvantaged environments—and it is important that we remember that—and they will gain increased access to the U of C through the Common App.” This seems simple enough to me, but he was widely criticized in the Maroon for his lack of communication on this issue.

Zimmer seemed to take criticisms of his communication style to heart, although he said some may misunderstand the president’s role in the university’s operation. “When you have situations that are of serious interest to the community, people should be informed of what is going on. When you have situations that go to the nature of the University of Chicago community, it is important to reaffirm our values. When it comes to communication, there are several different layers—various different parties need to handle various different situations, and there can be an important role for the president. This is a very complex organization and there are hundreds of decisions made independently everyday, by hundreds of people. There are some issues for students such as diversity and campus life and some for the faculty, such as academic issues. No one person is overseeing all these decisions. Part of my job is to make sure that the goals, values, and context of those decisions are consistent with the direction and values of the University.”

Does that mean hands off the Core? “Generally, the faculty feel good about the Core. It is the responsibility of the College faculty to define the College curriculum and oversee its evolution, and in particular do this with the Core curriculum. So I’m going to leave it up to them to fulfill their responsibilities, which I am confident they will do very well.”

Zimmer hasn’t had time to meet one-on-one with as many students and faculty as he’d like. After my time with him, I got the feeling a lot of the flak he’s been fielding would disappear if he could do this. But in the meantime, the skeptics should feel reassured that drastic changes in U of C culture are not in the works. Students shouldn’t worry about us turning into Brown anytime soon. “It really depends on what it is that makes one happy,” says Zimmer, the math-lover, who sees “serious academics” and “being happy” as part of the same successful subset. Despite Brown’s #1 happy students ranking, he’s more proud of our #1 undergraduate academic experience. “For me they are mutually reinforceable. It’s about finding a good fit.”