IU dedicates statue, commons to Nobel Prize winner Ostrom


Elinor Ostrom’s career was filled with a number of firsts — most notably the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

On Thursday, she received another honor posthumously when a statue of her was dedicated behind Woodburn Hall, the building where she taught while as a faculty member at Indiana University. It is the first sculpture of a woman on IU’s Bloomington campus.

The dedication of the statue, and the area behind Woodburn Hall now known as the Ostrom Commons, took place during one of the few in-person ceremonies at IU this year. About 60 people attended, sitting and standing several feet apart from one another to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Face coverings were required and attendees were asked to sign a waiver.

“After months and months of events like this over Zoom, it’s wonderful to be able to do one live like this,” said Michael McRobbie, IU president.

He spoke of Ostrom’s pioneering work in the social sciences, her persistence in earning a doctoral degree from the University of California, Los Angeles at a time when there was still debate about whether women should be admitted to such programs, and her time at IU, where she became one of the primary forces in the development of the study of the commons.

Ostrom’s work challenged common economic assumptions by disproving the “tragedy of the commons,” which states that humans will overuse any asset that is available freely, according to her biography on the National Academy of Sciences website. Her work suggested that government regulation was not necessarily needed to protect public resources. She showed that small communities around the world were capable of developing collective, self-governing institutions that would prevent over-exploitation of communal resources.

Lauren Robel, IU Bloomington provost, said Ostrom was like no else she had ever met. Ostrom had a skill for spotting assumptions and advocated for pragmatic solutions to complex problems, no matter how messy getting there might be.

Robel talked about Ostrom and her husband Vincent’s appreciation for artisans and craftsmen. Working with a carpenter from Unionville on multiple pieces of furniture, they learned to let the patterns in the wood be a guide. This inspired the two IU faculty members to create a workshop rather than a research center.

What was originally known as the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis when it was founded 1973 has since been renamed for the Ostroms. It has become the premiere meeting place for people interested in vexing questions of governance, tackling everything from the governance of natural resources to cyber security to data management.

Despite all her accolades, Ostrom never changed, said Michael McGinnis, professor emeritus of political science and former director of the Ostrom Workshop. He traveled with Ostrom in 2009 to Stokholm, Sweden, when she, along with University of California economist Oliver Williamson, was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

McGinnis talked of having to drag Ostrom away from young scholars who were amazed that such a rock star of academia would take the time to ask them pertinent questions about their work and offer supportive comments.

The Nobel Prize made Ostrom a hot commodity, and she indulged in the numerous invitations to speak and contribute to collaborative research all over the world. This was true even as it became apparent she was nearing the end of her life.

Doctors had to schedule chemo treatments around her travel schedule, McGinnis said. When Ostrom died of cancer on June 12, 2012, at the age of 78, a copy of a student’s dissertation was found nearby with comments she had written, he said.

Sculptor Michael Livingston McAuley said he was given two main directives as part of his commission to create the Ostrom monument. Her facial expression was to be somewhere between a smile and a laugh, as depicted in a photograph he was given. She was also to be in sitting position.

He employed a subtle twist in the body of the statue to convey her energized persona. He learned that rumpled clothes were of no concern to Ostrom and incorporated that trait into his work as well.

McAuley tasked himself with ensuring Ostrom’s facial features were accurate and emanated her confident, vivacious spirit. He wanted it to not only look like Ostrom, but feel like her as well.

He did mention one departure from reality, a thickening of Ostrom’s wire-rimmed glasses. This was done to improve the durability of the public art installation.

When the cloth covering was pulled back, a life-size depiction of Ostrom sitting on a bench was revealed. McRobbie closed the ceremony by saying he hoped all the future generations of students and scholars that walk past the statue will be inspired to make their own contributions to the advancement of knowledge.