The business administration professor and expert in Middle East politics is remembered for his devotion to UChicago and to generations of students.
- December 03, 2020
Marvin Zonis, 84, a widely admired and loved Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, died on Sunday, November 15, 2020, after a brief illness.
Professor Zonis was born and raised in Boston. He was educated at Yale University, Harvard Business School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he received a PhD in political science), and the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute.
Zonis’ career at the University of Chicago spanned over 50 years; he was devoted to the institution and its students. His research and expertise were wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary.
“In addition to being an outstanding scholar, Marvin was an incredibly popular professor who made a lasting impact on his students. He stayed close with many as a friend and mentor long after they graduated from Chicago Booth.”
“In addition to being an outstanding scholar, Marvin was an incredibly popular professor who made a lasting impact on his students. He stayed close with many as a friend and mentor long after they graduated from Chicago Booth,” said Madhav Rajan, dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting at Chicago Booth.
He began his career as a scholar of Iranian politics and became a leading authority on the Middle East more broadly. Over the course of five decades, he worked in the Department of Political Science, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Committee on Human Development before joining the Booth School of Business in 1987. At Booth he developed some of the School’s most popular courses, on topics including leadership, international political economy, political risk, and emerging economies. He was the first at Booth to teach a course on the effects of digital technologies on global business.
Zonis was at heart a teacher who taught with charisma, warmth, wisdom, and humor. As a staunch advocate of the University of Chicago’s ethos of teaching students how to think, he taught undergraduate core classes in the social sciences for many years. He was committed to preparing students to be better citizens and contributors to their home countries and to the world. A mentor and friend to generations of students, he provided guidance, support, and inspiration as they pursued their careers and life goals all over the globe in academia and the corporate and financial worlds. He found immense gratification in their successes.
“Marvin brought to life in his behaviors what it means to be an authentic teacher. His legacy is manifest in many small acts of kindness and intellectual stimulation that he brought to decades of work with students who he really respected and cared for.”
“Marvin brought to life in his behaviors what it means to be an authentic teacher,” said Harry. L. Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management. “His legacy is manifest in many small acts of kindness and intellectual stimulation that he brought to decades of work with students who he really respected and cared for.”
A former student, Thurston Bailey, AB ’93, told the Chicago Sun-Times that he was one of a handful of Black male students in his class at that time, and that Professor Zonis “made you feel the world was your oyster.” Bailey, an attorney in Chicago, told the newspaper that Zonis wrote recommendations for him to attend law school.
Professor Zonis was proud to have received many accolades for his teaching, including the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and to the student experience at the University of Chicago.
The Marvin Zonis International Scholarship Fund, awarded each year to an exceptional prospective Booth student from an emerging economy, was created in his honor by a group of his former students. He and his wife Lucy Salenger were deeply involved in the experiences of scholarship recipients when they came to Chicago. Professor Zonis went so far as to buy winter gear for students arriving from warm climates.
Professor Richard Shweder, a longtime colleague in the Department of Comparative Human Development, remembered Zonis as an “adored” faculty member. Zonis was a founding member of a monthly faculty discussion group in the 1970s, which drew scholars from across the social sciences and humanities to his home in Hyde Park. That informal discussion eventually led to the formation of a new course in the College’s Core curriculum, now called “Mind.”
“He was one of the key faculty members supporting interdisciplinary comparative work on the way cultures and psyches make each other up,” Shweder said.
Throughout his career, Zonis wrote extensively on topics including Middle Eastern politics, US foreign policy, and globalization. He often analyzed political events and leaders through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. His articles have been widely published, including in the Financial Times, The New York Times, and the International Herald Tribune. His books include The Political Elite of Iran, Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah, Risk Rules: How Local Politics Threaten the Global Economy (co-author), and The Kimchi Matters: Global Business and Local Politics in a Crisis Driven World (co-author). Zonis served on multiple boards, including those of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, CNA Financial, and City Elementary, a Chicago school for diverse learners.
During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 ABC’s Nightline called on Professor Zonis, then one of the few American experts on Iran, to explain events as they unfolded. He was a charismatic presence on camera, and skilled at clearly interpreting complex events in unfamiliar regions for general audiences. He became a frequent media commentator on international affairs. This led to consulting for corporations, including Fidelity Investments, KPMG, and Accenture.
Zonis and his wife Lucy traveled extensively around the world. They spent extended periods of time abroad, living for portions of each year in a deconsecrated church on a hillside near Città di Castello, Italy, hosting many grateful friends, colleagues, former students, and family members.
While conducting research for his PhD dissertation in the early 1960s, Zonis spent two years living in Tehran. To his astonishment he was introduced there to another Mr. Zonis, a cousin who had fled Romania and lost his family to the Nazis. He developed a deep friendship with the Iranian Zonis family, and ultimately helped the younger generation to immigrate to Chicago. As the first-generation American son of immigrants who fled persecution in Russia himself, the opportunity to help his cousins and their children to build rich lives in the United States was very meaningful to him. Sadly, Zonis was never able to return to Iran after the Revolution of 1979 as he had been officially declared an “enemy of the people.”
In addition to his wife Lucy Salenger, Professor Zonis is survived by daughters Brix Smith Start of London, Nadia Eleanor Zonis of New York City, and Leah Zonis Harp of Minneapolis, sons-in-law Philip Start and Jason Harp, and grandsons Lev and Hank Harp. His loss will be felt by dear friends, family, and former students in Chicago and around the world.
A memorial service will be held in Chicago at a later date to be determined. Contributions can be made to the Marvin Zonis International Scholarship Fund via this link: https://bit.ly/MarvinZonisScholarship, or by calling 773-702-7747. Contributions can also be sent to The University of Chicago, 5235 S. Harper Ct., 4th Fl., Chicago, IL 60615. Checks should be made out to the University of Chicago with an indication that they are for the Marvin Zonis International Scholarship Fund.