Editor’s note: Elinor Ostrom, a political science professor at Indiana University for more than 40 years, was the first and only woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. In April, she was named to Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. She died Tuesday at age 78 from pancreatic cancer.
I dropped in on my friend and mentor, Elinor Ostrom, a few months back. Lyn, like always, limited the small talk and got right to my work on the Fort Wayne Community Schools Board. It took only a few minutes before she began thinking of how her Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis could become more involved in studying the movement away from traditional public education. Like always, I left impressed by how quickly she grasped inconsistencies in current educational policy trends. She never was one much for conventional wisdom. I left our conversation feeling pretty darn lucky to have walked into her classroom 40 years ago.
Lyn and her husband, Vincent, taught an honors class at Indiana University. Their class integrated political science with economics; and since I was double majoring in those subjects, it was the perfect class for me. I checked Y-200 on my schedule, stood in line at the HPER building and enrolled. The Ostroms entered my life and changed my way of thinking about my world.
Lyn and Vincent, both kind to a fault, were passionate defenders of the beauty of our democracy. They fought against mindless government consolidation because they believed it alienates citizens from taking part in the democratic process. Lyn acknowledged occasional justification for bigger units of government to avoid free riders or to take advantage of economies of scale. However, she argued that smaller units should buy their services, not join bigger units; and, God forbid the smaller unit should be forced into the bigger unit.
I worked for Lyn at the Workshop for three years. We studied the effects of Uni- gov in Indianapolis. I walked the neighborhoods of Speedway carrying a box with a miniature street scene inside and a light bulb. Citizens would be asked to dial up the lighting to the level that matched the lighting of their block. We ran computer analyses of our findings and confirmed that citizens of all income levels could be trusted to recognize the level of service being provided. Lyn’s work on policing and other public services won international acclaim. Her studies continued to focus on the important role individual citizens should play in shaping and protecting democratic institutions.
Lyn was happy and proud when, in 1979, I was elected to the Fort Wayne City Council at the age of 25. I called her occasionally to give an update on City Council work under Win Moses, my debates with Paul Helmke over municipal consolidation and to just stay in touch with Vincent and her. In our first conversation after I was elected to the school board, Lyn provided detailed analysis demonstrating how consolidated school districts were killing innovation – vintage Lyn.
Lyn combined her remarkable intellect with a mother hen approach to her personal relationships. Like all great teachers, she made you feel more important to her work than you had a right to feel. When Lyn won the Nobel Prize, I knew she would credit Vincent and all the colleagues she collaborated with over the years. In Lyn’s case, it was not false humility.
I am sad over Lyn’s passing, but I smile at the good fortune of finding an open spot in that political science class 40 years ago in Bloomington.