Being Robert Zimmer: Sitting down with the UofC president, one year in

Eleven months ago, Robert J. Zimmer, clad in gown and tam, stood before assembled personalities in Rockefeller Chapel extolling the University of Chicago and articulating the challenges he foresaw facing it during his term as president of the University. He concluded, with apt rhetorical flourish, “Twenty four hundred years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides described his own work as designed ‘not to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.’ Let us take Thucydides’ challenge to himself upon ourselves and approach the legacy that has been entrusted to us and the future of the University of Chicago with equal aspiration.” With that, the colorful crowd of professors and dignitaries from hither and yon recessed down the grey aisle from whence they came, with all the pomp that academe reserves for the arcane rituals it has fostered since the Middle Ages. The carillon, which had been echoing in the cavernous hall, cut out with the emphatic finality of a period. As it crossed the threshold out of the chapel, a flag emblazoned with the University’s motto flashed: Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur Let knowledge grow from more to more, And so human life be enriched.

Since that colorful day in October, Zimmer’s term has evoked a very different bit of Latinized wisdom: Sic transit Gloria. Glory fades. In eleven months, it seems President Zimmer and his administration have, in one way or another, succeeded in alienating many different segments of the student population at the University of Chicago and the resident community in Hyde Park and Woodlawn. The president’s appeal to the 1967 Kalven Report to avoid divesting University money from firms with ties to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur was received as a coldhearted backdoor approach to an important issue, not least by campus activists. (The report advised the University to avoid taking stances on political issues that would jeopardize the University’s atmosphere of free inquiry.) Concerned residents of the Grove Parc housing complex in Woodlawn, whose livelihoods were threatened by a government-mandated redevelopment plan in the neighborhood, were left to protest their situation on the steps of the Administration Building in May after only a promise on behalf of the University to encourage future dialogue on ways to address tenant complaints. Perhaps most controversially to undergraduates, Zimmer’s administration unexpectedly announced a switch to the Common Application for admissions in place of the University’s twenty-five-year-old “Uncommon Application,” striking at an important, if gimmicky, element of students’ identity.

President Zimmer’s biggest curse, however, has not been unfortunate timing or even bad decision-making. In fact, campus rancor has obscured some of the president’s successes, including breaking ground on the multi-million-dollar Reva and David Logan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, and raising more than $100 million for undergraduate financial aid. Instead, the president’s biggest liability has been his image: The aloof mathematics scholar sequestered in his office, an able administrator, perhaps, but an awfully colorless figurehead for a colorful university. This perceived image doubles for the president’s administration, which has been variously attacked as distant, dismissive, and inscrutable.

These days, President Robert Zimmer is sequestered, but by circumstance. The fifth floor of the Administration Building where his office sits is undergoing heavy renovation, and the approach to the president’s workplace is beset by the miscellaneous artifacts of heavy construction, from power tools to two-by-fours. Once inside, the president’s office is remarkable if only for its neatness; the white walls and vacuumed rugs stand in contrast to the mess in the hall.

The president himself is a very handsome man, especially considering that he’s turning sixty in November. His hair has grayed, but his perpetually dark skin saves his rugged complexion from looking haggard. When he sits he appears noticeably relaxed without slouching, casually throwing his arm over the back of a chair beside him while periodically sipping coffee. He speaks in the measured lilt of a lifelong educator. “Well, I basically have, on a typical day, meetings back-to-back from eight to six-thirty. That would be me meeting with vice presidents, trustees, deans, faculty, student groups, alumni, donors, public officials, community representatives, and on and on,” Zimmer says about his job. “Then, of course, since I have meetings all day, there’s other work I need to do–writing and communication and so on–and that I would typically do either before eight or later in the evening.” Despite the humdrum of his daily schedule, Zimmer emphasizes, “I do not get bored … It’s an extremely interesting job. It’s very busy. There’s a lot of challenges to it. But I’ve been at the University for a long time, so the University is very important to me and most of the people I meet with, one way or another, the University is very important to them, too.”

Zimmer came to the University of Chicago after serving as provost at Brown University, but the bulk of his professional history is set in Hyde Park, where he has served as professor, Mathematics Department chair, deputy provost, and vice president both for research at the University and for the Argonne National Laboratory. His terms in all his posts have prepared him for the highest leadership position in the university hierarchy and the responsibilities it entails, including enduring criticism from unhappy residents in his sphere of influence. Speaking about making decisions in his position, Zimmer says, “It’s inevitable that not everyone can be happy all of the time. That’s just the way of the world. And, really, what you always try to do is get as much input as you can, get as broad a set of views as you can, have as much argument about it as you can, and ultimately you need to come to some decision making the best and most informed judgment that you can, always with the goal that the only real criterion that matters is what’s good for the University of Chicago.” That decision-making philosophy seems to have triggered a rash of discontent, especially in the case of the University’s divestment from Darfur. When pressed on his opinion of the student protestors who rose in response to the Darfur issue, Zimmer thinks for a moment, then responds with the doting patience of an understanding father: “I think it’s perfectly fine. I think this is a university that’s always believed in open discourse–full argument–and I think it’s perfectly fine for a group that has strong feelings about particular issues to be very vocal about it.”

That meditation on campus discontents is a starting point for something that Zimmer and his administration to date have had trouble doing in the face of widespread criticism: enthusiastically pointing out a list of things that the University has done better under his leadership. Asked about his biggest achievements from his first year, Zimmer responded, “I feel good about initiatives we’ve been able to undertake so far in terms of financial aid for College students and for graduate students in social sciences and humanities [including the $500 million Odyssey Program designed to help these students]. I feel very positive about what we’ve been able to do in the arts, or at least what I view as a beginning for the arts.” Regarding the University’s role on the South Side of Chicago: “The School of Social Services Administration has been involved as a partner in community groups and helping community groups for decades … The Urban Education Initiative, which we managed to move forward yet more this year because we opened a third school, is not only evolving in conjunction with an important academic program with the Committee on Education, but is also helping children. During this past year, we’ve also launched the Urban Health Initiative, which is working with partner healthcare institutions on the South Side to build a better healthcare network on the South Side and ensuring that most residents on the South Side have a primary care physician.” And the list goes on.

Yet for all his work, President Zimmer does lead two lives. The dignified president is only one aspect; the Robert Zimmer at home with a wife and three sons–the Robert Zimmer who likes to cook and listen to classical music, who would prefer an evening walk and family dinners to homework from the office–is another. Among the Zimmer men, the topic of choice is baseball. His face lit up as he explained, “We spend a great deal of time talking about baseball, because all three of my sons are serious baseball fans.” When inevitably asked to make a choice, Sox or Cubs, Zimmer, smiling, answered, “Not having grown up in Chicago, I don’t feel like I can’t root for both of them,” before finally mischievously betraying his true allegiance: “Being mostly a National League baseball fan [rooting for the New York Giants before they moved to California], I’ve been more of a Cubs fan.”

Publicly, Robert Zimmer remains the face of the University of Chicago, however busy, exasperating, or trying it can be. Not that he would have it any other way. “One of the things that you do when you’re president, actually, is, because of what you do, you actually have to focus and think about the value of the University of Chicago: Why it’s important. And sometimes when you’re very busy and you’re not forced to think about that and you’re a student or faculty member–even if you know it’s good–you often are not called upon to focus on that,” Zimmer explains. “There are some things that are very extraordinary and very special about this institution that I get to focus on.”

At that moment, Zimmer’s assistant knocks and enters to announce the next guest. “Who is it?” Zimmer asks. She mouths the word “governor.” Zimmer, smiling politely, says, “Pardon me. I’m sorry, but I really have to take this.”