Losing 'Lin': 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics winner Elinor Ostrom dies of cancer
By Nona Tepper
Elinor “Lin” Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Prize recipient and distinguished professor of political science, died Tuesday at IU Health Bloomington Hospital. Ostrom, 78, will be remembered for her professional work, her commitment to students and her 47 years at the University.
But the impact of her legacy can perhaps be summed wholly in her nickname: she will be remembered as Lin.
“The thing you have to understand is everyone knew her as Lin,” Ostrom’s colleague Burnell Fischer said. “She was such an approachable, simple person, you could go and just sit in her office for hours.”
Fischer was a friend of Ostrom’s who researched urban forestry with her.
The two worked at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop for Political Theory and Policy Analysis together for nine years, but Ostrom’s time at the University spans further.
After earning a Ph.D. in political science from University of California-Los Angeles, Ostrom came to Bloomington in 1965.
Vincent Ostrom, her husband of 49 years, was then hired to work as a political science professor at IU. The couple moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington for the position.
Then, the University added Ostrom to the faculty directory. She was hired as an assistant professor because the department needed someone to teach Intro to American Government at 7:30 a.m.
She took the job and in 1973 founded the workshop with Vincent.
Ostrom once described the workshop as a space to unite people of many disciplines.
IU graduate student Gwen Arnolds took a class with Ostrom in 2006 and has remained a workshop member since.
She said Ostrom supported anyone with a good idea.
“As a teacher Lin was always incredibly engaged,” Arnolds said. “It didn’t matter if you were a first-year graduate student or established professor. She would pay attention to what you were saying.”
Graduate students, undergraduates and field experts work at the workshop to solve current social and political problems and research issues, primarily in the field of sustainability, from a variety of angles.
Ostrom’s role in this discussion was simple: she was the facilitator.
Michael McGinnis, current director of the workshop, said he’d never met someone who had such a knack for bringing people together.
“Her enthusiasm was infectious,” McGinnis said. “She found a way to get people to work very hard with her.”
Her expertise lay in political science and economics. Ostrom researched ways
to distribute resources to the masses beyond simple state- and market- driven practices.
Her 1990 book, “Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” examines effective governance systems for common-pool resources, such as water treatment and forest preservation.
“She had an extraordinary gift of scholarship,” Dean of Students Harold “Pete” Goldsmith said.
In October 2009, she became the first woman to ever receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Science.
She won the award for her research in how people overcome selfish interests to successfully manage natural resources.
In April she was also included in Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2012.
In May the IU Board of Trustees renamed the workshop to honor Vincent and Elinor.
She is the recipient of numerous other international awards and degrees, but despite her celebrity, McGinnis said she always treated everyone as an equal.
“She just had a basic human kindness toward just about everyone,” McGinnis said. “She set a wonderful example.”
In late 2011, Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her life expectancy was then estimated at about three months. Ostrom quietly began chemotherapy treatments in November.
“Some days she didn’t look as perky as other days, but other than that, she was still productive at the workshop,” Fischer said.
She still found time to travel.
Ostrom visited India in March and lectured in Mexico in June. She still worked with colleagues on grant applications and continued to foster discussion at the workshop.
At the end, more than six months after her initial diagnosis, she was surrounded by family and friends. Vincent, now 93, was brought to her bedside to say goodbye. She died at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, and McGinnis said her passing, and life, were peaceful.
But Ostrom’s legacy — at IU, at the workshop, in the world — will live on.
“She’s the most famous faculty member at IU, it’s incredible,” Fischer said. “But more than that, her legacy is of somebody who collaborated and interacted with people of a variety of disciplines and interests. There’s no simple way to think about Lin. She’s a complex person.”