My friend Bob Zimmer, facing health challenges, announced he would step down as president of the University of Chicago next spring, concluding 15 years in that demanding role. He will move into a newly created role of chancellor, allowing the university to continue to draw on his deep well of talent and wisdom. I worked with Bob for 12 years (technically, I worked for him for most of those years, but he always made it feel like a partnership).
In 2017 Bret Stephens, in his New York Times column, declared Bob Zimmer “America’s Best University President.” That’s a fitting title for someone whose list of accomplishments as president is staggering in scope and impact. His leadership has transformed the University of Chicago, and his contributions will be felt throughout the remainder of this century and beyond.
I regularly implore our students to acknowledge and thank the individuals in their lives who made their journey possible—their families and teachers and anyone who lifted them when they stumbled, who put the wind at their back to help them go further. I must do the same. Bob Zimmer taught me lessons that guide me every day and for which I will be forever grateful. I will mention only four, even though the list is much longer still.
- Embody and elevate your institution’s values. It is hard to find a communication from Bob where he doesn’t describe Chicago’s distinctive intellectual culture, its commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry, and the rigor of its programs. Those are Chicago’s calling cards. When this pandemic hit, Colby’s leadership team gathered, and before we talked about what we needed to do, we discussed how we wanted to approach the challenges—what Colby values we would draw upon to create a road map that would always direct us in ways that are true to our mission and culture. We started with a simple idea: do the right thing. By that we meant we would act with empathy, compassion, and a recognition that this crisis would affect people in a variety of ways. We wanted our decisions to reflect a clear sense of justice, integrity, and a commitment to our people and the common good. Carrying out our mission of excellence in undergraduate education begins with an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness and the ways in which that can support or detract from learning, growth, and discovery.
- Believe in the possibility. Bob’s aspirations for his university know no bounds. He always imagines what’s possible—not what simply appears achievable—and he is not satisfied until he accomplishes it. He is demanding, creative, and tireless. The freedom that comes from releasing unnecessary constraints creates a culture of innovation and high expectations. As I have toured our new Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center and our downtown arts and hotel projects, and begun implementing our comprehensive plan for reopening this fall, it is apparent that Colby’s aspirations are also boundless.
- Excellence is not desired, it is required. Bob has always been flexible and adaptable, but there are bright lines for him. The line that separates true excellence from simply being good enough is one of them. Excellence in academic institutions begins with people. Colby’s hallmark has long been a truly remarkable faculty—scholars of the first rank who are also teachers of unparalleled skill and commitment. That is more true today than ever. Our staff is dedicated, experienced, and with increasing frequency coming to Colby from the world’s great institutions. And our students, by any measure, are among the most qualified and deserving of any students in higher education.
- Give talented people room to create and grow. I will be forever grateful to Bob for so many things, and one will be his ability to see things in me that I hadn’t recognized in myself. He pushed and challenged me, and when I met the challenge, he opened new opportunities for me to learn, take risks, and, ultimately, to achieve. One of my great privileges at Colby is working every day with enormously talented, driven individuals. As I push and challenge them, I hope they know it is because I see their greatness and I want it to shine even brighter. When it does, they will recognize in themselves what I see—that their leadership makes a difference and that their growth will lift Colby even higher.
Bob Zimmer will always be known as the president who lifted the University of Chicago to new heights in the 21st century, but I find special pleasure in knowing that he will always be associated with Colby as well. One of my treasured honors was awarding him an honorary degree at my inauguration in 2014. Yet an even greater honor for me is having had the opportunity to learn from him and to have grown through our friendship. I am indebted to many people in my life, and Bob will always be right at the top of that list.
David A. Greene