Memorial service announced for Richard Zdanis, former provost with enduring impact

All are invited to celebrate his life and work at 4 p.m. Monday, June 10, at an on-campus remembrance

In his dozen years as provost and vice president of Case Western Reserve University, Richard Zdanis led with a quiet strength and a deep respect for fairness, while shaping practices and policies that continue to sustain and bolster the institution.

Photo of Richard "Dick" Zdanis
Richard “Dick” Zdanis
Photo courtesy of University Archives

With a trademark aversion for the superficial, Zdanis approached administration with the same reflexes that drove his research: collecting and analyzing diverse data before acting—a strategy that proved particularly effective for a university still completing details of an institutional federation begun more than two decades earlier.

Zdanis died Sunday, May 5, in Columbus, Ohio, where he lived with his wife, Barbara, of 64 years. He was 83.

The campus community will celebrate his life and contributions at 4 p.m. Monday, June 10,  in the Amasa Stone Chapel. The memorial service will include remarks and remembrances from former colleagues, family and President Barbara R. Snyder.

“Among his many contributions to Case Western Reserve, Provost Zdanis played a pivotal role in the creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and Case School of Engineering,” President Snyder said. “I am grateful to his family and former university colleagues for providing this opportunity to honor him and his legacy.”

Sandra Russ, Distinguished University Professor and the Louis D. Beaumont University Professor, and Richard Baznik, university historian and vice president emeritus for public affairs, jointly organized Monday’s service.

“Dick was all business, thorough—effective,” said Russ, who, as associate provost at the time, worked directly with Zdanis. “He could stand up to pressure very well, took flak and made hard decisions for the good of the university.”

Renowned as a young researcher for his work in high-energy and particle physics, Zdanis transitioned mid-career, entering higher education administration in the mid-1970s at Johns Hopkins University, where he’d been on faculty since 1962 and had earned a PhD two years prior.

“He loved physics and science, and remained in the field,” said Russ. “He entered administration seeking to make a bigger difference in the life of universities.”

Then, he met Agnar Pytte, a physicist and former Dartmouth University provost who became Case Western Reserve’s president in 1987.

Photo of Ricard Zdanis and Agnar Pytte standing together talking
Zdanis with President Pytte (right), 1999
Photo Glynis Lough/Observer

Pytte eventually persuaded Zdanis to leave his hometown institution, alma mater and professional home to take a provost position that had been effectively absent from the institution for a generation. It was 1988.

At Case Western Reserve, the two physicists formed a partnership all the more effective for the complementary nature of their contrasting personalities: Zdanis, a behind-the-scenes, no-nonsense administrator and Pytte, an ebullient and gregarious leader.

“Joining President Pytte was an opportunity to work with someone whom Dick admired and who inspired him,” Baznik explained. (Pytte passed away in 2015.)

Zdanis’ leadership in joining the sciences with humanities and social sciences to create the College —and launching a new academic home for engineering— brought order to shifting administrative configurations that were a vestige of the 1967 federation of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.

“If you had just landed from Mars, you couldn’t make sense of the way things were,” said Baznik. “Dick took significant steps to achieve the vision of unification that had started 25 years before.”

Richard Zdanis stands at a podium and poses for a photo with a woman and David Auston
Zdanis, center, at the Scholars Luncheon in April 2000 with David Auston, right.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

In recognition of his dedication to the mission of research universities, Zdanis is the namesake of an ongoing fellowship for graduate students, awarded annually since 2003.

Born in Baltimore in 1935, Zdanis was raised by first-generation Americans: His father, Albert, was the son of Lithuanian immigrants, and his mother Elsie’s parents hailed from Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic.

Following his 2000 retirement from Case Western Reserve, Zdanis and his wife remained in the Cleveland area before moving to suburban Columbus in 2012, to be closer to their daughter, Carole Zdanis Cavanagh.

He is survived by his wife, daughter, son Michael Zdanis, and six grandchildren. His son, of Glen Arm, Maryland, will speak about his father at Monday’s memorial.

For more information, please contact Daniel Robison at