March 31, 2006

Zimmer looks ahead to U of C

With Brown University provost Robert Zimmer set to assume the University’s 13th presidential post beginning July 1, the president-elect has been busy reorienting himself to campus as students and faculty get to know their new leader.

“I’ve been trying to come to campus periodically,” Zimmer said. “I was here last week for a couple of days and here this week for a couple of days, spending a lot of time meeting with the provost and deans and vice presidents, trying to understand how they see the University and what their challenges are right now.”

Zimmer’s campus visits have also included several meetings with the University’s Board of Trustees.

Zimmer joined the University as an L.E. Dickson Instructor of Mathematics in 1977, becoming chairman of the mathematics department and deputy provost of the University during his 25-year-long stay. Zimmer’s duties also extended beyond the classroom and into the domain of larger scale University interests, with his appointment as Vice President for Research and for Argonne National Laboratory in 2001.

“One of the things that I have, of course, from my experience in Hyde Park and in the University is a deep connection to the University and an abiding belief in the enduring values of the University,” Zimmer said.

As both a provost and educator at the University, Zimmer falls into a trend established by the University’s previous presidencies.

According to a University press release, Zimmer is the fourth consecutive former provost of another university to be chosen as the U of C president. Zimmer also will be the first president to have also been a University faculty member since Hanna H. Gray’s presidency from 1978 to 1993, according to the press release.

“Being provost, you are really in a unique position, in any university, to see how all the different components, whether it’s the academic, administrative, or financial, all come together, so it’s a wonderful job for really understanding how universities actually function,” Zimmer said. “I really look forward to both combining what I believe is my understanding and connection to the values of the University, but the experience of having been provost really lets you see a very specific way universities run.”

Zimmer’s previous responsibilities as Vice President for Research and for Argonne National Laboratory have also been at the forefront of the president-elect’s vision of the research institution’s future relationship with the University, which is currently competing for a contract to manage the facility for the first time in the 60 years it has run the lab.

“There’s an enormous potential for both the University and Argonne to benefit from this relationship and the University’s continued management of the lab,” Zimmer said. “There are just large opportunities for joint programs, for joint appointments, for student experiences, for sharing infrastructure, and I think Argonne can be and should be a very important component of the way the University thinks about a development of science at the University.”

Reflecting on the potential challenges of filling the president’s seat, Zimmer said that he remains optimistic and hopes to tackle such issues as constructively as possible.

“The University has an extraordinary history of inquiry at the highest level, that inevitably as knowledge evolves, as problems evolve, the nature of the particular questions that the faculty is going to be involved with, and the students are going to be involved with are going to evolve,” he said. “And you want to ensure that the University really is able to evolve to address the problems of our times while doing it in a way that really connects with the enduring values that the University has always had.”

Zimmer reflected on a March 10 event in Hutch Commons, in which students had a chance to meet with and ask various questions of the president-elect. Most notably, Zimmer credited students’ appreciation of the University as a “unique place in the landscape of higher education.”

“Students both felt good about [the University’s distinct position] and wanted to be assured that it was going to be enriched on the terms that it would remain a distinctive place,” Zimmer said.

“I’m very happy to hear that and very comfortable assuring them that that is indeed my intent,” he added.