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Employee Spotlight: Eric Zillmer, Renaissance Man

July 17, 2017

Besides Drexel University,  Eric likes to "hang out" at the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Store at 2038 Sansom St.

Eric Zillmer, PsyD, wears many hats at Drexel University — and not just the golf cap with a Drexel “D” on it. For close to 20 years, he’s held dual positions in two seemingly different areas of campus as the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the director of athletics, and if that seems mismatched to you, then you’ve probably never met him. 

“I think of it all as working in higher education, so for me it feels completely seamless,” he said. “I also believe my students and peers see me as just one person.”

Zillmer first came to Drexel in 1988 to run the PhD program in psychology, which was the only social sciences doctoral program on campus at the time and was accredited in 1998 — one of his most important achievements to date, he said. In 1996, he also became the faculty athletics representative, overseeing the academic integrity of Drexel’s intercollegiate athletic programs, and became more and more involved with the athletics program and all of its student-athletes, coaches, staff and leadership. At one point, he was asked to step in as the interim athletics director and he never left.

“I enjoy working with students and faculty, solving bigger problems and strategizing complex issues, so I always thought I wanted to be a dean or provost,” he said. “But the opportunity that presented itself was in athletics, and for me it was a perfect pivot.”

Athletics can be the front porch of a University and a catalyst for its aspirations.

“I believe that over my tenure, recreational and varsity athletics has been playing an increasingly visible and important role in the perception of and the life in our University,” Zillmer said. “I see first-hand how our student-athletes compete their hearts out for Drexel, between the lines and in the classroom. This motivates me to bring my A-game to University City each and every day.”

Athletics have always been a part of Zillmer’s life. He is a former student-athlete himself. He skied competitively and played tennis and basketball while growing up in Germany. His family was athletically inclined as well: His father competed in baseball for Army ’44, his mother was an Austrian championship figure skater who coached his older sister “Bibi,” a figure skater herself, on the West German 1968 Olympic team.

This family figure-skating culture also played a different, though equally important role in his life: It introduced him to music. His mother choreographed all of his sister’s routines, and Zillmer remembers listening to classical music like Tchaikovsky and Beethoven (though, as a child, he didn’t appreciate it as much as he later would). His father bought him a set of drums when he was 16 — “one of the biggest surprises of my life,” Zillmer said — and he acquired his first guitar around that time too.

Now he owns four guitars and takes lessons on classical guitar, flamenco guitar and jazz guitar. Brazilian music is his favorite to play — just look at his iPhone case of Seu Jorge, a Brazilian musician who famously recorded Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and played in Philadelphia last fall (Zillmer, a self-proclaimed “professional concert-goer,” was there, of course).

“Music has been the soundtrack to my life,” Zillmer said. “I was born in Tokyo, I’m bilingual in English and German, I’ve lived in several different countries in Europe and Asia and I didn’t move to America until I was 23. Music, to me, is more important than language.”

Zillmer retrofitted this flamenco guitar with special custom tuners designed specifically for him — check out the two Chinese-style dragons along with jade tuners.

Zillmer translated his love of music into his professional life at Drexel, which was originally founded as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry — and has always thought of the arts as part of its educational mission.

“I’m fortunate to work at a university where you can bring music into your own environment without having to feel like it’s something that doesn’t fit,” he said. “In fact, I think of athletics as art. I believe that for all our students to be successful, regardless of what major, they must navigate the sciences as well as the arts, and especially their evolving relationships with each other.”

Zillmer’s love of music is clear as soon as you enter his office in the Daskalakis Athletic Center. He keeps one of his four guitars (and a stand with music sheets) to play when work gets to be a little too hectic. Of course, the one he keeps on campus has dragons on it ­— he retrofitted this flamenco guitar with special custom tuners designed specifically for him by the renowned Canadian Jorg Graf of Graf Tuners, which features two spectacular Chinese-style dragons along with jade tuners.

“My guitar friends shake their heads, because the custom dragon tuners cost more than the instrument, but every time I pick up the guitar I have an affection for seeing those dragons,” he said.

More recently, Zillmer has been using his love of music in other ways on campus. This past spring, he brought Grammy-winning classical guitarist David Russell to campus for a concert co-sponsored by the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society (he’s a board member). Next spring, he will teach a class in the Pennoni Honors College on the Psychology of Music.

“I’ll bring my neuroscience expertise in, since the brain manages music,” he said. “First and foremost, I like to teach critical thinking and I will use music as a metaphor to accomplish this. I have learned that our students are most intrigued with interdisciplinary inquiry. Through my work in athletics I have also become close friends with Chuck and Annette Pennoni, who endowed the Honors College and who embody intellectual curiosity as well as a love for Drexel. In my classroom and in life, I try to model myself after those virtues.”

This isn’t the first time that Zillmer is bringing his real-world experience into the classroom. This past spring, he taught another Honors course, this one on the psychology of ISIS. At the same time he was also retained by Pike County District Attorney’s Office as the mental health expert in the trial of Eric Frein, who killed a Pennsylvania state trooper in 2014 and who was sentenced to death in April (after being convicted of terrorism charges, as well as murder and manslaughter). Zillmer has literally written the book on military psychology and is an expert on examining how terrorist perpetrators get involved with terrorism.

Classical guitarist David Russell playing at Drexel University's Mandell Theater this past spring, which Zillmer helped make happen.

“I was teaching the class at the same time-frame I was evaluating the defendant in prison and assisting the DA with the case,” Zillmer said. “I was bringing appropriate aspects of the trial and the process into the classroom in real time, and we used this information as a springboard to discuss home-grown vis-a-vis international terrorism, as well as the morality of the death penalty. Drexel students are keen to learn through experience and reflecting on doing. In this case, our classroom became a real live society. We’d discuss it one day and then read about it on the front page the next day. It was fascinating pedagogy.”

Merging real-world experience with classroom teaching is a no-brainer for Zillmer. He’s already mixing academia with athletics and music with neuropsychology. And it all comes together in his love of Drexel, which he praises as only a psychology professor and director of athletics can.

“Drexel plays offense — it doesn’t play defense,” he said. “With this soccer analogy I mean we play to win, not for a tie. Drexel is a modern and creative university in a dynamic urban setting. Drexel is all about the now and the potential of what could happen — how do we make the impossible … possible? I teach honors students, oversee college athletics and play guitar out of the same space every day. It does not get any better than that!”

This story was published in the summer 2017 issue of Drexel Quarterly.