Oliver Williamson, a UC Berkeley and Haas professor for nearly three decades whose elegant framework for analyzing the structure of organizations won him a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, passed away on May 21, 2020 in Berkeley, Calif. at the age of 87. His death followed a period of failing health and complications from pneumonia.
"Williamson’s work permanently changed how economists view organizations," said Prof. Rich Lyons, who was dean of the Haas School when Williamson won the Nobel and is now UC Berkeley’s Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer. "Yet for all of his intellectual creativity, I most often think of Olly as a person who lifts others. The ripple effects that he has had on his field through his students and colleagues could well be as large as the enormous impact his own work had."
Williamson, the Edgar F. Kaiser Professor Emeritus of Business at Haas and Professor Emeritus of Economics and Law at UC Berkeley, received the most prestigious prize in economics in 2009 for his insights into what’s known as the "make or buy" decision. This is the process by which businesses choose whether to outsource a process, service, or manufacturing function or to perform the work in-house.
Williamson’s path-breaking contributions to economics were deep and boundary-spanning. They included seminal work that laid the foundation for the now-burgeoning fields of organizational and institutional economics. Traditional economic approaches of the early 1970s did not allow for analysis of governance within organizations. By showing that economics could illuminate the costs and tradeoffs that parties make in transactions, Williamson’s work brought governance and the management of relationships into economic theory.
Oliver Eaton Williamson—known as "Olly" to his friends, colleagues, and students—was born in Superior, Wisconsin on September 27, 1932. The son of two teachers, he formed lifelong friendships with his Superior Central High School Class of 1950 classmates, holding four reunions per decade and annual poker weekends. He received his B.S. in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, an MBA from Stanford University in 1960 and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in 1963.
Williamson began his teaching career at Berkeley, where he was an assistant professor of economics in the undergraduate program. In 1965, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught and held various leadership roles until he joined the faculty at Yale University in 1983.
In 1988, Berkeley lured Williamson back by appealing to his interdisciplinary interests and offering him appointments in not only business and economics but also the law. While at Berkeley, Williamson created a world-renowned PhD workshop known today as the Williamson Seminar on Institutional Analysis. He retired from teaching in 2004.
Williamson’s contributions to economics were widely recognized through awards, fellowships, and no fewer than 11 honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. Two of Williamson’s five books, Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Antitrust Implications (1975) and The Economic Institutions of Capitalism: Firms, Markets, Relational Contracting (1985) are said to be among the most cited in the social sciences.
The Nobel Prize, which Williamson shared with Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University, marked the apogee of his career. The award was the second Nobel Prize for a Haas economist. Haas Professor John C. Harsanyi shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics with John Nash, Princeton, and Reinhard Selten, Bonn-Germany, for their contributions to game theory.
Williamson is survived by his five children and five grandchildren.
Those wishing to remember Williamson may do so by making a donation to the Northern California and Northern Nevada Alzheimer’s Association.
Full obit and downloadable images at https://newsroom.haas.berkeley.edu/nobel-laureate-oliver-williamson-dies-at-87