Press Releases | Freedom of Expression

University of Chicago President to Receive National Award for Commitment to Academic Freedom

ACTA will recognize University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer for national leadership on issues of free expression and academic freedom
May 11, 2017 by ACTA

WASHINGTON, DC—The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) announced that University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer will receive its most prestigious award, in honor of the University’s national leadership and advocacy for free expression and academic freedom. ACTA, the leading independent nonprofit advocating for academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education, will present President Zimmer with the 2017 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education.

The selection, recommended by a distinguished committee of educational and civic leaders from around the country, specifically recognizes President Zimmer’s instrumental role in the creation of the Chicago Principles. In 2014, responding to growing concerns about attempts at censorship and the urgent need to protect academic freedom, he convened the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression. The committee’s report included what became known as the Chicago Principles, which articulated the university’s vision and clear commitment to free speech, cementing free expression as a value essential to the mission and operation of the modern university.

Today, a growing number of institutions—including Purdue University, Princeton University, and the University of Wisconsin System—have adopted the Chicago Principles as a model for the protection of open discourse and inquiry on campus.

President Zimmer reflected on the award in a statement:

“It is an honor to accept the Philip Merrill Award. It reflects the University of Chicago’s historical commitment to fulfilling the highest aspirations of a rigorous and challenging liberal arts education, as articulated by many of its faculty and leaders over the years.  This demands an environment fostering open debate, mutual challenge, multiple perspectives, and wide freedom to express views that may be unpopular or contrary to any consensus. It is our collective responsibility as educators to help all of our students to understand and participate fully in this challenging intellectual project, one that will enhance their abilities for their entire lives. On the other hand, a failure to sustain these values will lead to diminished quality of education for our students and a weaker environment for original faculty research. The climate in higher education today directly questions our level of commitment to these values. For our students, our faculty, and our society, it is our obligation to embrace and reinforce the values of a powerful, challenging, and fully open liberal arts education.”

“In a campus climate with manifold reasons for concern about the present and future states of academic freedom, the fearless example set by the University of Chicago and its Chicago Principles have been a beacon for us all,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “President Zimmer’s unwavering courage, character, and vision in defense of academic freedom today offers a model for all university leaders in search of a clear, articulate, and powerful commitment to first principles.”

An experienced higher education administrator and distinguished professor of mathematics, President Zimmer has led the University of Chicago—one of the highest ranked research universities in the world—for over a decade. Under his direction, in addition to its storied and continuous record of outstanding research, the University has also received recognition as the leading institution for academic freedom and intellectual diversity from ACTA and other organizations, including Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“The University of Chicago is a model for viewpoint diversity on campus, receiving the highest score on our Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges,” said Jonathan Haidt, co-founder of Heterodox Academy. “We congratulate President Richard Zimmer on this worthy recognition from ACTA. Efforts like those championed by President Zimmer contribute to an environment where truth, reasoned debate, free speech, and free inquiry are cultivated and recognized as university ideals. We hope to see additional universities following their lead.”

The Philip Merrill Award will be presented at an evening gala following ACTA’s annual ATHENA Roundtable conference at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on October 20, in Washington, DC. The award honors individuals whose careers have promoted excellence in liberal arts education. It reflects and honors the legacy of the late Philip Merrill, a distinguished public servant, publisher, businessman, and philanthropist who served as a trustee of numerous universities and cultural institutions. Throughout his career, Mr. Merrill was a passionate proponent of academic excellence and an articulate spokesman for the importance of liberal education in a free society.

Previous Merrill Award recipients are:

  • 2016—Niall Ferguson, senior fellow, Hoover Institution at Stanford University & Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights advocate and former member of the Dutch Parliament
  • 2015—Hank Brown, former U.S. senator and president emeritus of the University of Colorado and University of Northern Colorado
  • 2014—Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society
  • 2013—Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War, University of Virginia
  • 2012—Thomas M. Rollins, founder of The Teaching Company
  • 2011—David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author
  • 2010—Benno Schmidt, past president of Yale University and past chairman of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY)
  • 2009—Robert “KC” Johnson, distinguished scholar of 20th century history and professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center
  • 2008—Donald Kagan, author of the magisterial four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History and Classics, Yale University
  • 2007—Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita of history at the CUNY Graduate Center
  • 2006—Harvey C. Mansfield, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University
  • 2005—Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University.



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Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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