Chicago's Next President Is Outsider-Insider

March 13, 2006

One choice facing search committees for college presidencies is whether to go with an inside candidate (promoting a provost or vice president) or going outside to a top administrator at a comparable institution.

The University of Chicago managed to split the difference Friday when it named Robert J. Zimmer as its next president. While Zimmer is nominally an outsider, as provost at Brown University, he spent most of his academic career at Chicago, teaching mathematics and serving in various administrative capacities.

Zimmer's last job at Chicago, prior to moving to Brown in 2002, was as vice president for research, a position that involved supervising the university's management of the Argonne National Laboratory, which is being challenged seriously for the first time in decades. The Energy Department has set a competition to manage the prestigious laboratory and even though Chicago has history and numerous other advantages on its side, the fact that it is not seen as having a lock on the contract has concerned some faculty members. Zimmer's selection was seen by them as a sign that Chicago will fight to keep the management contract.

In a phone interview Friday, Zimmer offered few specifics about his plans for Chicago, saying that he needed to develop his agenda in conjunction with faculty members. But on Argonne, he didn't hesitate to take a stand, calling it "absolutely important" for Chicago to maintain its management role, and noting that other Illinois institutions -- the University of Illinois and Northwestern University -- collaborate with the university at Argonne and would like to continue to do so.

"I think the university has managed Argonne well for decades, since its inception, and the university has an enormous amount to contribute," he said.

In selecting an Ivy provost as president, Chicago's board was following something of a tradition. The current president at Chicago, Don Michael Randel, was Cornell University's provost, and he was preceded at Chicago by Hugo Sonnenschein (a Princeton University provost) and Hanna Holborn Gray (a Yale University provost). A few student eyebrows were raised at Chicago at word that Brown's provost would be their next president. Chicago is a place where students boast about how rigorous their core curricular requirements are -- and Brown is a place where students boast about not having requirements.

In fact, at Brown, Zimmer was a big part of a drive by President Ruth Simmons to raise the institution's research orientation. And he is making clear that his time at Providence won't necessarily inspire a "new" Chicago curriculum. "One of the things that I see at Brown is that Brown has its own particular culture with its own particular strengths, and thinking about how to move Brown forward, one needed to think about those strengths," he said. That respect for institutional culture, he said, "applies equally well to the University of Chicago or any university."

As to Chicago's culture, he said, he wanted to preserve its "singular focus on inquiry at the highest level and education that reflects the nature of that inquiry." Zimmer said that his job would be "to see that that environment flourishes and addresses the most pressing problems of our times."

Chicago's presidents include such legendary figures as William Rainey Harper and Robert Maynard Hutchins, but Zimmer said that he did not see any one of his predecessors as a particular model, but hoped to draw on their collective legacy. A specialist in geometry, Zimmer said that his scholarly background in mathematics might also come in handy: "Mathematics really demands an enormous amount of rigor in one's approach -- rigor that comports very well with the way the University of Chicago works."

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