Marvin Zonis

Marvin Zonis

Marvin Zonis, 84, widely admired and loved Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, died on Sunday, Nov. 15, 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 doctoral degree in political science, and the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. Zonis’ career at the University of Chicago spanned over fifty years; he was devoted to the institution and its students. His research and expertise were wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary.

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.

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.

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" and "Risk Rules: How Local Politics Threaten the Global Economy." 

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.

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 an hillside near Città di Castello, Italy, hosting many grateful friends, collegues, former students and family members.

While conducting research for his doctoral 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, Zonis is survived by daughters Brix Smith Start of London, Nadia 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, 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.

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