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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012

Distinguished Indiana University scholar Vincent Ostrom dies

Husband and intellectual partner of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom

June 30, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Vincent Alfred Ostrom, a world-renowned expert on democratic governance, died Friday, June 29, at his home near Bloomington from complications related to cancer. He was 92.

Ostrom, whose career ranged from consulting with local and state governments to conducting important practical and theoretical work on political economy, was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences.

Together with his colleague and wife, Elinor Ostrom, he founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the university in 1973. Elinor Ostrom, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, died June 12, 2012.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom

Vincent Ostrom served as co-director of the Workshop from its founding until his retirement in 2003. The research center was renamed in the Ostroms' honor earlier this year.

"Vincent's death, especially coming so soon after his wife Lin's passing, is an inestimable and tragic loss to the university and to the broad fields of political theory, social-science and policy-based interdisciplinary research," said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. "Vincent was an internationally acclaimed scholar and highly respected teacher who had a tremendous influence on the study of institutions and societal governance, and who spread that influence broadly through the work of his students and colleagues.

"Together, Vincent and Lin Ostrom comprised a unique scholarly team. Vincent was the biggest supporter of Lin's work, which earned her the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009; while Lin was quick to credit Vincent for much of her own success. Vincent and Lin also were outstanding representatives and generous citizens of the Indiana University community, founding and leading the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, to which they gave much of their own funds and resources for university research.

"We extend our deepest sympathy to Vincent and Lin Ostrom's many friends, students, former students and colleagues, who we know will miss them both greatly," McRobbie said.

"Vincent Ostrom's seminal work illuminated effective governance structures," added IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel. "Vincent and Lin had an extraordinary life and intellectual partnership. Their cumulative contributions to knowledge and to the development of generations of students and colleagues is stunning in its impact."

At the Workshop, which their graduate students, visiting scholars and IU faculty colleagues have called an intellectual home for nearly 40 years, the Ostroms encouraged collaborative, transdisciplinary work now known as the "Bloomington School." This distinctive line of teaching, learning and scholarship joined theory and empirical work to examine questions of governance in myriad settings, from natural resources to municipal corporations and from village life to international institutions.

In the late 1950s Vincent Ostrom pioneered work on polycentric governance, the idea that overlapping, concurrent decision-making authorities may best enable public choices in public economies to be fair, effective and efficient. In his later years, he took great pride in the recognition that his wife received. Although health problems kept him from accompanying her to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize, he beamed as he watched the ceremony on closed-circuit TV at the Workshop with friends and colleagues.

She, in turn, credited him as a major influence on her research. Her best-known book, "Governing the Commons," is dedicated "to Vincent, for his love and contestation."

"Vincent's was a distinctive voice in the fields of public administration and political philosophy," said Michael McGinnis, IU Bloomington professor of political science and director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. "For Vincent, politics was all about solving practical problems and realizing shared aspirations. His conceptual vision of the remarkable ability of communities to govern themselves laid the foundation for the extensive program of empirical research that earned Lin the 2009 Nobel Prize. They made a great team, both as scholars and as spouses. Each was devoted to the other until the very end."

"Vincent's writings span five decades and include the study of a governance form that he and co-authors Charlie Tiebout and Bob Warren named 'polycentricity,'" said Barbara Allen, Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences and professor of political science at Carleton College and a friend and student of the Ostroms. "The Workshop, which he created with his love and colleague, Lin, will continue to tackle the challenges of institutional analysis, design and development in the 21st century."

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Vincent Ostrom, right, and Elinor Ostrom received the University Medal from IU President Michael A. McRobbie in February 2010.

Print-Quality Photo

Among his many accomplishments, in 1955 Vincent Ostrom helped draft Article VIII on Natural Resources of the Alaska Constitution, the first comprehensive constitutional article on natural resources in the world, which enshrined the idea that the people of Alaska, rather than the government, would own the state's natural resources. He wrote prolifically about collective action and polycentric governance, drawing on sources such as "The Federalist Papers" and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.

He was born Sept. 25, 1919, in Nooksack, Wash., to parents who were recent immigrants from Jamtland County, Sweden. His family domesticated minks and had an international business in mink pelts. After graduation from Mount Baker High School in Deming, Wash., he traveled south for college, attending Los Angeles City College, graduating from UCLA in 1942 with a degree in political science. He earned an M.A. in 1945 and a Ph.D. in 1950, also from UCLA.

He taught at Chaffey Union High School in Ontario, Calif., held faculty positions at the University of Wyoming, the University of Oregon and UCLA, and worked as a research associate at the Bureau of Municipal Research and Resources for the Future. In 1964, he accepted a position as professor of political science at IU Bloomington.

His best-known books are "The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration," "The Political Theory of a Compound Republic" and "The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies." The first two have gone through multiple editions, and the first was included in a list of the most influential books in public administration published in the last half century.

He was a consultant to or member of resource management commissions in Oregon, Tennessee and Hawaii, and was a member of the consulting team for the merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky., public school systems. He served as president of the Public Choice Society, was editor-in-chief of Public Administration Review and served on the editorial boards of many journals.

He received numerous professional awards, including the American Political Science Association's John Gaus Award and Lectureship and IU's University Medal and the Herman B Wells Visionary Award, both presented jointly to Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in 2010.

In addition to his wife of nearly 50 years, he was preceded in death by two sons from a previous marriage, James Vincent Ostrom and Peter Alfred Ostrom, and a brother, Gordon Ostrom. He is survived by a sister, Echo, of Everson, Wash.

There will not be a funeral service. A memorial event for both Elinor and Vincent Ostrom is being planned for Oct. 15 at IU. Details will be announced later.