Ellen Zimmerman has seen many changes and played many roles during her 30 years at Framingham State, but nothing could have prepared her for the events of this past year.
When Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Angela Salas unexpectedly left the University in February, president F. Javier Cevallos asked Zimmerman to step into the position.
“It was a fairly quick decision,” said Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a professor and chair of sociology, previously served as associate vice president for academic affairs from 2009 to 2015, which she said will help make the transition smoother.
Zimmerman said, “I’m familiar with the office – I know a lot of other people in administration – so there is a comfort level to that and considerable administrative responsibilities in that position. The provost position is obviously a heavier load of responsibility, and I’m glad I have that other experience to inform this position.”
She added she will hold the position “a little over a year” so the University will have enough time to find a qualified replacement. She said she hopes she will provide “stability and continuity” while the University searches for a new provost.
Supporting students during the COVID-19 crisis is her most pressing concern in her new position.
“We know that many students are facing serious challenges, and helping them meet these challenges has required most of our attention during the spring semester. We have had to be very creative in conducting the spring semester classes and also in delivering support for students through CASA and the Advising Center, as well as conducting new and transfer student orientations,” said Zimmerman.
But on top of helping students during a pandemic, Zimmerman must work with the University to hire four new academic deans. She explained the college of education will be combined with social sciences.
“We are hiring an interim dean of business who will be someone from the FSU community. The deans of the other colleges will be continuing for another year,” said Zimmerman.
She added, “There is one difference from what was discussed in the fall, and that is that the deans will all be highly experienced, current FSU faculty members, rather than someone identified through an external search process. We think that, in this time of transition and in the midst of a serious health emergency, we need people in leadership positions who are dedicated members of our community and who understand the FSU culture of collaboration and collegiality.”
Zimmerman added, “As far as the academic restructuring goes, we will follow the guidance of the faculty committee that met last fall by adopting one of the models they proposed. We will have the following colleges: College of Arts and Humanities, College of Business, College of Education and Social/Behavioral Sciences, College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
In the meantime, she hopes she can use her time now as interim provost to help create a more inclusive campus.
“We have a wonderfully diverse and talented student body, which enriches us all. We also are fortunate in having so many caring and creative faculty, whose primary mission is to support the students not only in their learning but also in their personal growth. We need to continue to develop and improve on a welcoming and inclusive climate for all of our students, faculty, and staff,” she added.
Zimmerman said along with her experience serving as associate provost, her background as a department chair will serve her well.
“Being chair has given me the opportunity to get to know people in a different way, and I’ve really enjoyed it. It is a lot of work, but when you’ve got faculty who are really supportive and willing to take on some of the load – which I’m lucky enough to have – it makes it a lot easier,” said Zimmerman.
Zimmmerman earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Western College for Women in Ohio.
Because she went to an all women’s college, she was able to serve in leadership roles.
“In that day and age, it was not that common for women to be in leadership positions, but it gave me a taste for that and a taste for political engagement,” said Zimmerman.
After graduating, she became a social worker in Kentucky, working with “all different kinds of people.”
“I had never lived in a more southern community before, so, culturally, it was a bit different and interesting,” said Zimmerman.
“I was humbled by that experience, because, as a 22-year-old, I could not imagine having to deal with some of the challenges, as well as discrimination, that they [her clients] faced.
“And it’s not that my life was idyllic. I was raised by a single mom who was left with five children under the age of 10 when she was 35. But I was fortunate to have a loving, safe, and completely supportive home, which I came to know was a privilege too often lacking for many people. And I’m privileged in other ways as well. That knowledge has shaped me as a person as well as how I live my life,” she added.
After three years serving as a social worker, Zimmerman chose to further her education, earning her doctorate in anthropology and linguistics at the University of Chicago.
“Growing up I was always interested in other ways of seeing the world. I understood from a pretty young age the way I was growing up and living is not the way everyone grows up and lives and just wanting to learn more about that – [anthropology] was a very good fit,” she said.
Zimmerman lived for a total of four years in India where she developed her Ph.D. dissertation.
During her first two years in the country, she helped “to look after a group of undergraduates who were doing their junior year abroad there.”
During her third year, she went on a language fellowship to “learn the language and be more engaged in the community” while she formally began conducting her research for the dissertation, finishing it up the next year.
“I had a lot of help [learning the language] – it was not easy because the writing system is completely different,” said Zimmerman.
“The language was Telugu, which relies on circles and check marks,” she added, which is vastly different from the Hindi language that “most Americans are familiar with.
“I still have to read very, very slowly and look things up sometimes. I was always in a university community and everyone could speak English very well, so I didn’t have to rely on the language unless I traveled outside of [that] environment.”
Zimmerman has since been back to the country she fell in love with.
“I just recently was there on a Fulbright grant to teach linguistic anthropology at the University of Hyderabad – that was fall of 2017. I learned how to cook Indian food while I was there so I would [later cook] for my classes [in the U.S.],” said Zimmerman.
“Living in India for an extended period of time gave me a view into another way of seeing the world, and of living one’s life, that works very well and can be very satisfying. It increased my capacity for what anthropologists call cultural relativism, the idea that no one culture is better than another – that there are multiple ways of thinking and doing that constitute viable and valuable ways of being in the world.”
She advised all students to take the opportunity to study abroad, if possible.
“I think this experience set me up at a relatively young age to appreciate and value diversity in all its forms,” she added.