Nobel laureate, UC Berkeley professor Oliver Williamson dies at 87

Oliver Williamson holds his Nobel medal

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Oliver Williamson, a Nobel laureate in economics and UC Berkeley professor, died after a period of failing health May 21 at the age of 87.

Williamson is best known for his Nobel Memorial Prize-winning work in transaction cost economics, which looks at how different organizations, such as joint ventures, firms and government institutions, are organized and how they interact with others from an economic perspective.

According to his son, economist Dean Williamson, this work opened up a new area of research that was not accommodated by orthodox economics.

“He will be recognized as one of the founders of the economics of organization,” Dean Williamson said. “He enables the rest of us to work on a whole host of issues that would have otherwise been ignored. He makes economics take the real world more seriously.”

According to many, Williamson’s research was applicable not only to the field of economics, but also to other fields such as law, political science, sociology and anthropology. John de Figueiredo, an economics professor at the Duke University School of Law, said this range led him to see Williamson not only as an economist, but also as a social scientist.

The impact Williamson had on economics is not limited to his research contributions. Many of his colleagues also believe his impact stems from recruiting, educating and mentoring graduate students who have gone on to further his work.

“It is possible that the impact he has had in his field through his Ph.D. students is as large as the impact he’s had on the field through his research,” said Richard Lyons, campus chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. “The ripple effects of shaping people that come after you is absolutely enormous.”

Joanne Oxley, vice dean at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and one of Williamson’s former students, remembered Williamson saying that one of his greatest achievements was helping his students apply his findings in different fields.

Williamson’s friends said while he was generous with his time to his graduate students, he also devoted time to his friends and family. John Morgan, the campus Oliver E. and Dolores W. Williamson Chair of the Economics of Organizations, said he golfed once a week with Williamson, or “Olly,” as he was affectionately called. Others described Williamson as a lover of quality wines, tennis, fishing and metal sculpting. Many also spoke of the love he had for his wife, Dolores, as well as for the rest of his family.

On the day it was announced that Williamson won the Nobel Memorial Prize, Lyons said there was a plan to toast Williamson in a forum on campus. He recalled walking with Williamson to the forum and how everyone “erupted in cheers” when they came out. Campus economics professor Steven Tadelis and campus global business professor David Teece remember him as a humble man who said he didn’t deserve the award even though it was clear that he did.

“You can’t tell the story of Olly without trying to balance Olly the giant and Olly the person who was so dedicated to the people around him,” Tadelis said. “It was really unique to have such a person. There’s a word in Yiddish, ‘mensch,’ meaning a ‘person of great character,’ and Olly was a mensch.”

Williamson is survived by his five children, Scott, Tamara, Karen, Oliver Jr. and Dean, as well as his five grandchildren.

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.