This week, academia and the free speech community lost one of our most important figures. Former University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer passed away at 75. Zimmer was an inspiration for many of us who have resisted the rising atmosphere of intolerance at colleges and universities across the country. His issuance of the Chicago Principles would prove one of the most important moments in American higher education and will forever leave us all in his debt.
I have always been proud of my alma mater, The University of Chicago, for its commitment to free speech. However, my proudest moment came when Zimmer sent a famous letter to the class of 2020. The letter warned students that they will not be shielded from views that upset them or given “safe spaces” on campus.
In the letter, the university declared that “our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
It was a moment of clarity that is missing in today’s environment of speech codes, microaggressions, and cancel campaigns.
When he stepped down in 2021, there was a virtual panic in the free speech community. He was our champion and placed one of the premier academic institutions in the world on the side of free speech. It was the academic equivalent of Elon Musk releasing the Twitter Files and dismantling the company’s massive censorship operation.
Zimmer became the target of academics who have worked to limit free speech and academic freedom. He never flinched. He remained unyielding in support of the ideals of free thought and expression.
It is a struggle that continues to this day. It is still not clear whether his successor, Armand Paul Alivisatos, will show the same fortitude for free speech, but we are all hopeful.
In the meantime, the desire to silence others continues to rest like a dormant virus in the university. The week that Zimmer passed, students and groups pushed to block a conservative columnist from being able to speak on campus. These are students who accepted admission at a school that expressly told them that they would have to agree to UChicago’s free speech principles. They were specifically told that the university is based on the belief that you cannot cancel those with opposing views. After accepting those conditions, they sought to cancel this speaker and impose the same intolerance that has ruined other schools.
The school is ranking among the top universities in the world and it is ranked number one for free speech. Yet, these students accepted admission and proceeded to try to convert the school in their own intolerant image.
Fighting free speech at UChicago is like going to Notre Dame to oppose football.
Zimmer was born on Nov. 5, 1947, in Manhattan and raised by his father who was a doctor and his mother who managed his medical office. He would often refer to being raised in the diverse community as instilling a deep tolerance for divergent views: “You felt that tolerance in a deep way.”
I only wish that the exposure to New York had the same impact on many citizens today who have supported censorship in the name of fighting misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.
Robert Zimmer left us with a lasting legacy that will hopefully inspire others in academia. Many professors have remained silent in the face of intolerance and orthodoxy. Zimmer stood up and spoke up. He lived his life in support of the right of others to think and speak freely, including those with whom he disagreed. He knew that higher education demands a leap of faith not only in free speech, but in each other. He lived a life of enduring faith in principles lost by too many in our society. It is a legacy that will endure for generations.
Farewell, Robert Zimmer, and thank you.