Professor Elinor Ostrom

By: Dr. Samuel Brazys

Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first and only female Nobel laureate in Economics died today at the age of 78.  Professor Ostrom, or Lin as she was known to colleagues and students alike, was an extraordinary scholar and a wonderful human being.  While many others can and will speak to her lifetime of remarkable achievements, I would like to share some simple thoughts on the ways in which I believe she has enriched our profession and our world.

Lin never accepted arbitrary boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge.  Despite her training at UCLA as a “rational choice” political scientist, Lin was part economist, part sociologist, part biologist, part agronomist, part historian, part philosopher and part cultural anthropologist; in other words, she was a complete scholar.  Lin transcended petty methodological and discipline divides because she recognized that one needs to be well-versed in all aspects of social and natural phenomenon in order to pursue knowledge effectively.

Secondly, Lin never accepted that there were boundaries to how well we can understand the world around us and our interactions in it.  Or, in other words, Lin continually pushed those boundaries.  Lin published more groundbreaking work after the diagnoses of her illness than most productive scholars will in a lifetime.  Lin continually sought improvement in theory, method and observation not for the sake of accolades and self-aggrandizement, but because it led to better scholarship.

Finally, Lin never accepted that there were boundaries to where one could obtain knowledge.  Lin’s seminars and lectures were not comprised of rooms full of starry-eyed students transcribing notes from a legend. Rather, they were a frank and open exchanges, in form though not in fact, of equals.  Despite all of her accomplishments Lin never took for granted that the next insight in scientific discovery might come from a Nepalese farmer, an Indianapolis policeman, or a first-year PhD.  While I can comfortably say that no great insight came from this particular PhD student, the dozens of her former students in excellent academic, public and private posts around the global is a testament to her ability to develop, teach, engage with, and learn from the other intellectually curious minds.

Lin’s loss is individually irreplaceable to the discipline and indeed the world.  However, if we collectively learn her lessons and adopt her thirst for knowledge we can continue to advance our knowledge of efficient and effective human management and governance in a world of increasing scarcity.


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