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Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Elinor Ostrom

Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science
Senior Research Director, Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis; Part-Time Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs
Department of Political Science
College of Arts and Sciences
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1966
B.A., University of California, Los Angeles, 1954
M.A., University of California, Los Angeles, 1962
Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, 1965

"Lin's study of the governance of resources is widely recognized in the university, the academy, and the profession as a signal contribution to knowledge." --Jack Bielasiak, IU Professor of Political Science and Interim Chair of the Department of Political Science

Elinor Ostrom

Photo by Ric Cradick

Elinor Ostrom

Print-Quality Photo

On October 12, 2009, the rest of the world discovered what colleagues at Indiana University and within the field of political science have known for years -- that Elinor Ostrom is an academic pioneer who has forever changed conventional wisdom with her outstanding scholarship and research.

That mid-October morning brought the announcement that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had awarded Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, making her the first woman to receive that honor. (She shares the award with Oliver Williamson, Edgar F. Kaiser Professor Emeritus of Business, Economics, and Law at the University of California, Berkeley.)

Much of Elinor "Lin" Ostrom's career has focused on the analysis of economic governance, especially the commons -- resources that are collectively owned. It is no overstatement to say her work has changed everything in the field. Jack Bielasiak, IU political science professor and interim chair of the department, writing shortly after the Nobel Prize announcement, says, "Lin's study of the governance of resources is widely recognized in the university, the academy, and the profession as a signal contribution to knowledge. Even before the events of the past day, Lin was acknowledged as a pioneer in bridging insights and knowledge gained across multiple disciplines to enlighten a fundamental puzzle in the management of common resources."

Ostrom is an extensive and prolific researcher, with dozens of works to her credit. Her research has resulted in a transformation in how everyone -- academics, governments, the public -- conceives of the commons. "Lin has revolutionized the way the policy and scholarly community thinks about management of common resources, ranging all the way from local irrigation systems to efforts to slow global climate change. Her 1990 book Governing the Commons has been reviewed by scholars in an incredibly wide array of disciplines, and it has become the single most influential work in this field," says Michael D. McGinnis, co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and professor of political science. "Her current research projects, which remain many and vibrant, focus on identifying the conditions under which natural resources can be successfully managed in a sustainable fashion. Long before multidisciplinary research was fashionable, she was doing it on a regular basis."

Ostrom is not one to wait for things to become fashionable. At a time when many young women of her generation felt limited to 1950s and 1960s domesticity, Ostrom attended college and graduate school, earned her doctorate, and began her stellar academic career at IU Bloomington, where she became the first woman to chair the Department of Political Science. She has served as president of the American Political Science Association, and she is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

After co-founding the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis with her husband and long-term collaborator, Vincent Ostrom, she served as its co-director from 1973 to 2009, and she is currently its senior research director. As it so proudly states on its Web site, "the Workshop is not your standard research institute." Firmly rooted in the belief that ideas and theories must be considered through the lens of experience, it is a "unique setting in which IU faculty, students, and national and international visitors engage in interdisciplinary research integrating environmental sciences, social sciences, and policy analysis," says Bennett I. Bertenthal, James H. Rudy Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "The Workshop has an international reputation and has received generous funding from multiple federal agencies over the past three decades."

In addition to her international stature as a renowned academic and researcher, Ostrom is committed to nurturing the next generation. "Lin is by far the most effective mentor of graduate students that I have ever seen in operation," says McGinnis. "She pushes students to get the best out of themselves, and they work harder for her than I bet they ever thought was possible." In the last 10 years, nearly two dozen of her students have received National Science Foundation support for their dissertation research.

It's fitting, then, that when Ostrom traveled to Sweden to accept her Nobel Prize last year, about 20 of her friends, students and colleagues gathered at the Workshop to watch an Internet feed of the ceremony, cheering her on.

In February 2010 IU President Michael A. McRobbie presented the University Medal, the highest award bestowed by Indiana University, to Elinor and Vincent Ostrom jointly.