Marvin Zonis, political economist and scholar of Middle East, 1936-2020

December 4, 2020 (last updated on July 13, 2023)

This story was originally published by UChicago News. Read the article on their site here.

Scholar remembered for interdisciplinary research, lasting impact on students

Marvin Zonis, a widely admired and loved Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, died on Nov. 15 after a brief illness. He was 84.

His career at the University of Chicago spanned over 50 years. Zonis was devoted to the institution and its students, and 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,” said Madhav Rajan, dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting at Chicago Booth. “He stayed close with many as a friend and mentor long after they graduated from Chicago Booth.”

Marvin Zonis 1979
Prof. Marvin Zonis, 1979; Photo courtesy of the Chicago Maroon

Born and raised in Boston, Zonis 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.

He began his career as a scholar of Iranian politics and became a leading authority on the Middle East more broadly. Before joining the Booth School of Business in 1987, his UChicago tenure included stints in the Department of Political Science, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Committee on Human Development (which later became the Department on Comparative Human Development).

He developed some of Booth’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 UChicago’s ethos of teaching students how to think, he taught undergraduate Core curriculum 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, and found immense gratification in their successes.

“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 Zonis “made you feel the world was your oyster.” An attorney in Chicago, Bailey told the newspaper that Zonis wrote recommendations for him to attend law school.

“Marvin brought to life in his behaviors what it means to be an authentic teacher.”
—Prof. Harry. L. Davis

Zonis 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. Zonis went so far as to buy winter gear for students arriving from warm climates.

Prof. 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.”

Marvin Zonis
Prof. Marvin Zonis; Photo by Jean Lachat

“He was one of the key faculty members supporting interdisciplinary comparative work on the way cultures and psyches make each other up,” said Shweder, the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development.

Throughout his career, Zonis wrote extensively on topics including Middle Eastern politics, U.S. foreign policy and globalization. He often analyzed political events and leaders through the lens of psychoanalytic theory—contributing to major news outlets both in the U.S. and abroad.

His books include The Political Elite of Iran and Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah. He was also a co-author of Risk Rules: How Local Politics Threaten the Global Economy and The Kimchi Matters: Global Business and Local Politics in a Crisis Driven World.

In addition, 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 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.

“He was one of the key faculty members supporting interdisciplinary comparative work on the way cultures and psyches make each other up.”
—Prof. Richard Shweder

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 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 distant 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, Zonis found meaning in the opportunity to help his cousins and their children to build rich lives in the United States.

In addition to his wife, Zonis is survived by daughters Brix Smith Start, Nadia Eleanor Zonis and Leah Zonis Harp; sons-in-law Philip Start and Jason Harp; and grandsons Lev and Hank Harp. A memorial service will be held in Chicago at a later date. Contributions can be made online to the Marvin Zonis International Scholarship Fund, or by calling 773-702-7747.