Interview with Lee Alston, who recently retired, July 31, 2022
Upon his retirement, department colleagues Dean Lueck and James Walker asked Lee to reflect on these questions.
What have been your greatest professional joys and successes?
Lee Alston: Becoming President of the Economic History Association (EHA) and the International Society for New Institutional Economics was very rewarding along being named a Fellow of EHA and the Cliometrics Society. I also take great pleasure in being able to travel a lot of the world to give seminars and presentations along with some teaching and research stints, e.g., the Australian National University, Princeton, the Sorbonne, and the Stockholm School of Economics.
One of my joys was the pleasure that I received from teaching undergraduate and graduate students. I am also very proud of my Ph.D. students who are now Professors around the globe.
I always found teaching easy (my theater background?) especially when I could be lee unplugged.
What was it like coming back to your undergraduate alma mater to take on the leadership of the Ostrom Workshop and joining the Economics Department after all of these years?
Lee Alston: It was strange coming back after being away for over 40 years. I had been back several times to give seminars since I graduated, but I did not go to my old haunts. It was as if it was another me a long time ago. I recall visiting my old dorm which is now co-ed. In my day women could only visit on the weekends, and they had to sign in and out.
Taking on the leadership of the Ostrom Workshop was daunting but I threw myself into it.
The econ department was great in receiving me both before and especially after I was the Director of the Ostrom workshop. It is an incredibly welcoming department.
What were the biggest challenges and successes you experienced as Director of the Ostrom Workshop?
Lee Alston: Biggest challenge was obviously taking over from Lin. Impossible shoes to fill. After extensive interviews across campus, it was clear that the OW needed to become more open. When Lin was Director, many active affiliates were her co-authors. We decided to move to Program Directors in Governance of certain research areas, e.g., natural resources, political economy, data and information management…. This has been a success and the OW continues to add more programs. The challenge then was recruiting Directors for the Programs. I lucked out in hiring Dean Lueck but struck out with outside hires for the other programs, so we moved to extant IU faculty. Hiring was frustrating, very time consuming and turned my hair grey.
We overhauled the colloquium series to make it more beneficial for presenters and attendees with little formal presentation and more critical (but helpful) comments and questions. I was also proud that we added significantly to our workshop affiliates.
In reflecting on your outstanding career in academics, what experiences do you think were most important in shaping your career and the successes you had as a teacher, scholar, and administrator?
Lee Alston: Robert Higgs and Douglass North were incredible mentors during and following graduate school. I was rough around the edges and both Higgs and North had high standards to meet. My wife has been incredibly supportive of my work since we met at the Council of Economic Advisers. She has put up with 4 academic moves. My initial experience at Williams College was extremely beneficial. Their weekly seminar series was another graduate education. During my time at Illinois, I mentored many Ph.D. students, some of whom became research assistants, co-authors, and friends. At Illinois I launched an interdisciplinary seminar across economics, law, and political science. I continued this at Colorado and Indiana. Engaging students and faculty across disciplines has been rewarding and helped shape my research.
Do you have any special plans or projects after you retire from IU?
Lee Alston: I seem busier than ever. We moved to Taos, NM which has rekindled an old interest that I had in Spanish missions and their impact on Native Americans in the Southwest and California. I have also signed a contract to produce an edited volume on “Institutions and Complexity.” It is co-edited with my son, Eric, and long-term co-author Bernardo Mueller. No doubt other projects will come along. I may hang up my research cleats once I am no longer invited to give seminars or presentations. I really do enjoy teaching but there does not seem to be much of an opportunity in Taos unless I want to stand in the plaza with a placard that says: Ask the Economist?