By Patrick Brady
As she begins the next journey in her life, Ellen Zimmerman said FSU has been a “wonderful” place to work.
The outgoing Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs said, “I’ve always been incredibly appreciative of the cohesiveness of the campus community.”
She began working at FSU as a part-time faculty member in 1990, and became a full-time professor in 1993. In the fall of 2009, she was appointed associate vice president for academic affairs, a position she held until January, 2015.
She then served as chair of the sociology department for three years. And in the spring of 2020, she became the interim provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“I started that on the first of March in 2020,” Zimmerman said. “And of course, two weeks later, we went fully remote - so that was an interesting transition.”
Catherine Dignam, chair of the chemistry and food science department, said she appreciated Zimmerman’s thoughtfulness toward others and her “overall collegiality.
“As a young faculty member, I witnessed her speaking out when something was wrong or unjust,” she said. “But she always did so in a way that was professional and respectful.”
Dignam said Zimmerman provided a model of how people should stand up for what they believe is right, without alienating those who have opposing views.
“Dr. Zimmerman has led academic affairs through the COVID pandemic - one of the toughest periods higher education has experienced,” she said.
Susan Dargan, dean of the social and behavioral sciences department, said Zimmerman was the “ideal person” to lead the University through the pandemic. “She is a calm, patient, thoughtful, and intelligent leader.”
She said Zimmerman restored order to the University during “unprecedented times.” Also, she kept everyone focused on the tasks Dargan’s division needed to complete.
“Despite all of the challenges, we have been able to move forward to retool the Mary Miles Bibb post-doc teaching fellowships and reorganize some departments in order to attract students,” she said.
Marc Cote, dean of the arts and humanities department, said he has appreciated Zimmerman’s calm and thoughtful approach to decision-making. “She listens well and strives to build consensus through dialogue.”
He said one of her biggest accomplishments as provost was “systematically promoting” his division’s academic areas to the Board of Trustees, so they could have a fuller and more appreciative overview of what is taught, how it is taught, and what professors value as educators.
President F. Javier Cevallos said he truly valued Zimmerman’s knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
“Her calm and thoughtful demeanor has been incredibly helpful when faced with challenging issues,” he said. “She is very thoughtful and takes the time to analyze and study issues before making a decision.”
He said Zimmerman has been an “incredible leader” for academic affairs during the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She was “instrumental” in helping with the transition to virtual learning, then to hybrid, and back to face-to-face instruction, Cevallos said. “She cares deeply about students and their success.”
Zimmerman said she has always had an interest in learning other cultures.
During her junior year in high school, Zimmerman studied abroad in Germany. As a 16-year-old high school student from a small town. It was her first time being exposed to another language and culture.
“Learning to speak another language led me to understand how language itself shapes reality,” she said.
When she attended Western College , she originally wanted to major in German, but the university only had one professor who taught upper-level German. Therefore, she decided to take a sociology course instead.
Much to her amazement, the class aligned with her interests and she decided to take an anthropology class as well. Upon completing the class, she majored in sociology and minored in German.
After she graduated college, Zimmerman worked as a social worker for three years in Louisville, Kentucky. She said her job opened her eyes to the issues in American society.
She earned her master’s degree in linguistics and doctorate in linguistics and anthropology at the University of Chicago.
While she was conducting her dissertation research, Zimmerman lived in India for a couple of years. “I was looking at socio-cultural variables, like religion, social class, education level - those kinds of things,” she said.
Zimmerman added, “India basically became a second culture for me - like a second home - because I spent so much time there deeply learning the culture.”
Zimmerman said every time she goes back to India, she has a “sense of coming home.”
In 2017, she received a Fulbright grant to teach linguistic anthropology at the University of Hyderabad in India. She said the university had gone five full years without teaching the class.
She said the professor who previously taught the class had left to teach at another university.
“I’d love to go back and teach there one more time,” Zimmerman said.
Because Zimmerman had been teaching for a long time prior, taking on the vice presidential position presented her with an opportunity to do something different.
“That was kind of an exciting opportunity for me to learn more about the University at large,” she added.
Zimmerman believes overseeing the transition of all academic coursework to a remote format was one of her greatest accomplishments. She tried to make the adjustment as non traumatic as possible for faculty who had not previously taught online.
She said the Educational Technology Office was terrific in working with Academic Affairs during this transition because they provided training for faculty. In addition, the Division of Student Enrollment and Student Development played a role in determining what students needed.
Zimmerman said the IT Department provided a “cross-divisional effort” to ensure classrooms were outfitted with the technology professors needed. Along with faculty, she made sure students had access to spaces on campus where they could take remote classes.
“I was really proud of the way everybody in the University - staff, faculty, students - worked together to make that happen,” she said.
Aside from her commitment to students and faculty during COVID-19, Zimmerman was proud that Academic Affairs obtained approval from the Board of Trustees to fund greater development of the Center for Civic Engagement and Service Learning. The Center provides opportunities for students to connect with MetroWest institutes, businesses, and community centers.
Furthermore, her division instituted the Chris Walsh Center for Educators and Families in 2020. “That’s a wonderful new center with resources for educators and families of public-school students in the MetroWest area.”
She said it provides internships and other possibilities for students.
Along with the Chris Walsh Center, she was involved in the development of the department of environment, society, and sustainability.
Zimmerman said she and her husband have four adult children - two sons and two daughters - who live around the area. “We see them a lot and that’s terrific.”
In her downtime, she likes to read novels and memoirs.
Upon retirement, Zimmerman would like to spend time with her brother, who lives in Guatemala. When she visited him a couple of years ago, she said her Spanish “dramatically” improved, despite staying only two weeks at his house.
As Zimmerman prepares to retire, she offered words of advice to the upcoming provost. She said they should spend a lot of time talking to students, faculty, and administrators in order to get a sense of the culture at Framingham State.
She asked, “What are our values? What are our priorities for the future?
“Maybe spend a good six months listening to people and then proceed to be very transparent and collaborative about any changes that you want to see,” Zimmerman added.
She said while not everybody always agrees, the community can have civil conversations and compromise. “When two sides don’t agree on something, we tend to be very good about reaching out to all constituents when we are making big decisions for the University.”
Zimmerman said students, faculty, administrators, and staff are all included in the discussions.
“I hope everybody works together to meet the challenges of the future,” she said. “I think there isn’t much we couldn’t deal with as a community.”