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In Memory of Thomas Schelling

Thomas Schelling

It is not often that one man has such a profound impact on the world and the field of public policy. Thomas Schelling was such a man. It is with great sadness that we share with you news of his passing this morning.

Schelling found his home at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and Department of Economics in 1990, after twenty years at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 2005 he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences "for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."

The breadth of his academic interests, publications, and his impact on public policy was as far-reaching as his supporters and followers.

While Tom was best known for receiving the Nobel Prize, to us he was a teacher, leader and a truly beloved member of our community. His presence, ideas and collaborations were valued by his colleagues, and the grand connections he forged far and wide were humbled by his personal ties with his appreciative students. In fact at one Maryland Day, students celebrated his success by noshing on Tom’s favorite sandwich - peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread.

Tom was an extraordinary human being who leaves a legacy in the School and on campus that is unique.
We welcome you to share your reflections and remembrances of Tom. We will share them with his wife, Alice, and family. 



Note: There will be a short delay from the time of submission to the posting being live on the site. 


What a profoundly gifted, yet humble, man.  Of the scores of images that come to mind, a frequently recurring one is of Tom in faculty meetings.  Debate would sometimes swirl on some contentious issue with Tom quietly listening.  When the room finally fell momentarily silent in exhaustion and some frustration, Tom would begin: "The way I see it ..." and then quietly lay out a plan that seemingly drew on the best of everyone's positions.  The faculty would look at each other, shrug, and say "Makes sense to me."  We'd then move onto the next issue.

Tom was far more than a teacher and mentor to me. He was and will always remain a dear friend.The contributions he made to our world and to understanding its complexities are as deep as was his affection towards people and life. I find comfort knowing that Alice and all of us share our memories of Tom and I hope soon, all those memories will bring less sorrow and more joy.He will be sorely missed.

Rest in peace, noble one.

Tom and I were colleagues in the School of Public Policy (or Public Affairs as it was known when I signed on in 2000). His was a mind as kind as it was brilliant. Long after I had been hired I told Tom that we had briefly chatted in Harvard Yard, back in 1978, during his long and distinguished tenure as the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy. As his name and photo had cropped up from time to time (on books, in magazines, in the campus newspaper) I knew who he was even though I had never taken a course with him. I had read his book "Arms and Influence" for a course. I happened to see him shortly after the great scholar of organizational behavior, Herbert Simon, had won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics. I approached and asked: "So, what do you think of Herbert Simon winning the Nobel in Economics?" He smiled and said simply: "I was of course very pleased, considering that I nominated him." Oh! When I told this story to Tom, over dinner, many years later (but before his own Nobel in 2005) he was surprised that I remembered it. He didn't of course. My reply: "Well OF COURSE you are going to remember someone telling you that they nominated a person for the NOBEL PRIZE and the person WON!" He just smiled at that.

When I was a student preparing my work on community policing in Maryland, Dr. Schelling was my mentor. He saw my passion and encouraged it. He was kind, Socratic, and taught me much about being humble. I am fortunate for having worked with him for a brief amount of time, and won't ever forget.

It is not often that we are priviledged enough to be able to say "I have many fond memories" of someone as great as Tom Schelling.  And yet....  I do.  I remember his sweet humor making fun of David Crocker when he spilled his drink on Tom's shoes at a party and proceeded to try to wipe it off with napkins.  I also remember Tom's hosting a pizza and movie night at the School, where we watched Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Kubrick had brought Tom on, formally, as a consultant on the script because he wanted a realistic plotline, grounded in game theory, for how a nuclear war might actually get started.  We watched, then discussed.  A film major in undergrad, I never thought I'd be learning about Kubrick's approach to filmmaking from a Nobel laureate in economics.  But there you have it.  Describing those surprises--and others like the news just a couple years ago that he went to Antarctica because, you know, why not do that in your 90s?--is the best way I can explain the kind of person Tom Schelling was:  humorous, adventurous, kind, collaborative, and just plain fun.  He will be sorely missed.  I, and we, are so priviledged to have known, laughed with, and learned from him.

Dr. Schelling helped me get into the Univ of Md's School of Public Policy in 1993. He was one of my mentors and advisors as I started in the program. I was always amazed at his powers of recollection, remember dates and places and people over decades. He would share lots of stories with us from the times he had been advising past US Presidents. He exuded a quiet brilliance. What's equally amazing is that he remembered facts about his students, since he had probably taught hundreds of us over the years. I was also fascinated by his lectures on game theory to which he applied in everyday situations, including in social gatherings. He was very observant!  I'm sad to hear of his passing and offer my sincere condolences to his family. 

I first learned about Thomas Schelling when I was an undergrad preparing to write my senior thesis. I reached out to an economics professor of mine, who urged me to seek out Schelling's work for guidance on merging what I thought were two divergent passions of mine: economics and arms control. Luckily, my university library had some dusty, first edition copies of the Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence. It was then that I learned that this intellectual trail had been well blazed before. I was immediately impressed by the way that Schelling was able to think outside of the box on issues of the day, while still applying familar methods in a refreshing and clear manner. The legacy of his work was one of the reasons why I decided to attend the School of Public Policy. Although I never had the opportunity to have him as a professor, I did sit next to him at several presentations and brownbags during my time at Van Munching Hall from 2010-2012. He was always insightful and always humble. It was always clear how he approached an issue and arrived at a conclusion for the best course of action.

I first encountered Tom when I served as his Teaching Assistant at the Kennedy School where the course was simply known as Tom Schelling.  He later agreed to chair my dissertation and I am very proud to have his signature on that document.  We became friends over the years, sharing dinners with him and Alice and staying with them when I was in Washington.  The love that he and Alice shared was so deep you could feel it just being in the room with them. I can't recall him ever saying no to me, whether it was a blurb or foreword for a book or the many letters of recommendation that he wrote.  His praise, when it came, was simple and heartfelt; like another pearl to add to my string of gems from him.  I will miss him deeply and and indeed, today, the bell tolls for us.  RIP my friend.

I was never one of Tom's students (at least not an official student), but I knew him for nearly 20 years. I consider him, as have so many others, as a brilliant and kind mentor. He and Alice also became close friends to my wife and I. We will miss him so very much. Our love and condolences go to Alice.

He will be missed sorely

A very sad day. Tom was a great friend and colleague. I first met Tom about 15 years ago, on one of my first IT calls at SPP. He was very kind and engaging. We ended up discussing world issues and family! I was honored to visit Tom at his home on many occasions. He and Alice were always gracious and warm. Always in awe of his presence and greatly inspired!  A great man. The school has lost a giant.  My profound and heartfelt condolences to Alice and the Schelling family.

I didn't have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Schelling, but his work impressed me greatly FWIW.

Prof. Schelling was very kind and supportive of my research, even though we never met.  As many have said, he had several insights that were simple, profound, and extremely far-reaching.  The number of people who have had a comparably broad and deep impact on economics and political science in the last 60 years is less than five.  Our understanding of how people interact with each other has been enriched immensely by his contributions.

It was written well over a decade before I was born, but The Strategy of Conflict is the reason I went to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in political science.  My undergraduate advisor gave me her well-worn, marked-up copy from a graduate seminar, and it was the first time I saw international politics as something more than history or current events.  It was a profound realization for a 19 year-old, and it steered my career toward academia.  I try to pay it forward by including the book on my Introduction to International Relations syllabus, and I re-tell this story at least twice a year to a hundred undergraduates.

I met Prof. Tom Schelling when he was invited by Nabor Carrillo to come to Chile in 2007. We gave him a special gift to which he named "a practical gift". I will keep in mind one of the greatest moment of my life. RIP Tom and I send my condolences to his family. Soledad from Valdivia, Chile

I discovered Thomas Schelling's writings as undergrad and then was fortunate enough to take a class with him at the Kennedy School in the 1980s. Later, it was one of the highlights of my career when I was ridiculously fortunate to appear on the same stage with him. I will offer my recollections of the only time I ever got to chat with him one-on-one. It was in about 2007 when we both spoke at the same small conference at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He complained about the consequences of having recently won the "damned Nobel Prize." He said that as a Nobel Laureate, he received invitations to numerous events and he had found that most of these invitations were from groups who simply wanted a Nobel Prize winner, any Nobel Prize winner to appear at their event. As a result, he said, he turned down pretty much all of them.  However, he added that the next day (as I recall it), he was getting on a plane to fly to Moscow. Apparently his book, The Strategy of Conflict had been translated into Russian long ago but had in a classified edition. He was now going to appear at a book launch for the first unclassified edition of his most famous work. He felt that step by Russia into the normal world was worth honoring with his presence.His love of thinking and his playful inquisitive mind were beautiful things and I felt intellectually invigorated whenever I read his work and I felt honored every time I was in a room with him.

I was a student in the last course Professor Schelling taught at the Kennedy School.  It was a great class and we all felt privileged to learn from such an extraordinary man.  I'm a professor of economics now, and I enjoy sharing his insights and concepts with my game theory students.

I had the pleasure to host Tom in Cambridge (UK) back in March - a delight for me personally, as an enthusiastic admirer of his deterrence work since my first year of graduate school. He was a font of energy: not only did he and Alice fly transatlantic for only three nights to grace us with a guest lecture, they also revisited old haunts (Tom having first visited Cambridge in the late 1940s while on the staff of the Marshall Plan), read and commented on a half-baked paper of mine, displayed sparkling wit while being mobbed by academic fans, and stayed in the College bar speaking to students late into the night. He was a testament to the colossal, generous minds that America can still produce. His guest lecture for us at Darwin College, "The Prisoners' Dilemma: An Unsympathetic Critique" - for anyone who'd like to see it - is available here: https://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/2196900. 

I just received (here in New Delhi, India where I am giving some lectures at the moment) the news that Tom has passed away. I am very, very sorry to hear of this and wish to send my heartfelt sympathy to his wife, Alice, and his family. There is much to say about Tom's intellectual contributions to the fields of economics and public policy, and I will address that more fully in due course. First and foremost, however, and speaking from this state of grief, I have a more personal reaction. I simply want to declare that Thomas C. Schelling was like a surrogate father to me. We were colleagues together at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard from 1982 until 1990. In those years I was a young economist, confused about how to reconcile my interests in pure theory with my commitments to racial equality and social justice. Tom took me by the hand, and persuaded me that there was no contradiction between these whatsoever. During this time, he taught me much about being a scholar and even more about being a man. I will always remember the excitement and the joy of working closely with him at the Kennedy School in the 1980s. And, I shall never be able to repay his kindness during what, due to certain personal challenges that I faced, proved to be some of the darkest days of my life. It pains me greatly to know that he is no longer with us. I can only pray now, at this geographic remove, that Alice and his surviving children will find he strength to carry-on at this difficult time. I wish that I could be there with them now, but I will be constantly them in my thoughts.The Tom Schelling whom I got to know in the 1980s at Harvard had incredibly broad interests; a playful mind; was a master of strategic analysis; was in command of an impressively elegant writing style; and had a gift for imaginatively linking the insights of economic theory with the imperatives of public policy. At his instigation, we created and co-taught a course called “Public Policy in Divided Societies.” There I encountered and read deeply the writings of such scholars as Amartya Sen; Albert Hirschman; Erving Goffman; Leo Strauss; Kenneth Arrow; Robert Merton (Sr.); Howard Raiffa; Mancur Olson; Michael Spence; Harold Isaacs; Jon Elster; Thomas Pettigrew; Michael Walzer; Gunnar Myrdal; Thomas Kuhn; Robert Jervis; and others … (which is to say, even though I had a Phd in economics from M.I.T. I nevertheless got a real education!) And so did our students. With Tom's encouragement and inspiration, they wrote papers investigating such topics as: the Roma in Europe; the indigenous in Central America; untouchabililty in India; slave maroon communities in the Caribbean; skin color caste in the 19th century cities of New Orleans and Charleston; the sign language vs. lip-reading debates among the deaf; the affectation of name and accent changes to disguise ethnic/regional origins; collective punishment; group-based feelings of pride and shame: the public goods problems associated with collective reputation; racial profiling; stigma; explanations for the sexual divisions of labor at home and in the workplace; the inequality-promoting implications of endogamy and assortative mating, and much more … In my conversations with Tom Schelling some 30 years ago -- connected with the course and also more generally (since my office at KSG was just next door to his, intimate communication between us came to be the norm) -- we discussed many conceptual puzzles, and he helped me to understant how a broad-minded economist might provide and account for  the workings of such real-world phenomena as: rumors; seduction; riots; “passing for white”; plausible deniability; signaling; the value of strategic imprecision; the dangers of group think; code words and dog-whistle politics; discursive taboos and naked emperors; knowledge of another’s state of knowledge; image-management and strategic behavior in public; difference between promises, threats and bluffs... In short, I incurred an enormous intellectual debt to Tom in those years, one which I shall never be able adequately to discharge … He forever altered my way of thinking about the intersection between economic theory, social policy  and race – in the United States and throughout the world. I am the scholar that I am today, in large part, because of what I gleaned from these interactions with Tom Schelling. I came to love him dearly, and to rely on his sage advice. And I am now left to wonder what I will do without it. GL  

In late 2005 or so, I was preparing to start here, I had a meeting arranged with Jack Gansler.  I passed an office door that said Thomas Schelling, and my first comment to Jack was: "I didn't know Schelling had a son who taught here."  Jack set me straight, much to my amazement.A few years later, I was at some meeting -- Probably International Studies Association -- and repeated this story to Professor and Mrs. Schelling.  Professor Schelling's immediate response: "Were you disappointed it was the older Schelling?"  A brilliant man, of course, but also a good one.  And the latter is often harder to achieve.*I might add one odd vignette:  I was watching the local news one evening and a story came on about thieves ripping down copper downspouts in older neighborhoods where copper had been used.  The reporter approached one house that had been victimized, and the owner, who spoke through a half opened door, was Professor Schelling!  

Professor Schelling was a great thinker and communicator and a dedicated and engaged teacher. What i learned in his class on game theory has inspired and influenced the way i look at a conflict as an attorney, mediator and arbitrator.

I'm sad to hear this news, and it's appropriate that many of the comments are more personal than I'm in a position to write.  A quick view on TS's intellectual contributions, though: Game theory is one of the big ideas in social science from the second half of the 20th century, but sometimes limited by the temptation (some would say methodology) of firmly specifying the rules, payoffs, and available moves in advance.  That's the approach more inspired by parlor games, which were part of the early thinking.  But often it's (also) helpful to think about how players can "change the game".  A lot of what TS did in game theory was to insist on that topic, and enrich the field by constantly going beyond analysis of how you'd expect players to behave "within" the game as perhaps less imaginatively specified.A great and intellectually courageous mind.

Thank you for sharing this notice of the sad news about Prof. Schelling. Several years ago, he was kind enough to speak about his work, and how the international order functions, at an event sponsored by my unit. It was held in the Special Events room at McKeldin, and I happened to ride the elevator down to the first floor with him afterwards. There were a couple of undergrads also in the elevator, but who had not been at the event. We all chatted a bit on the way down--Prof. Schelling was his usual low-key self--and after he got off and he went on his way, I mentioned to the two students who he was, and that he had won a Nobel. I will never forget the look on their faces--that look that says something is one of the coolest, most unexpected things ever to happen to them--that they got to talk to a Nobel Prize winner, and that he had been interested in what they had to say. Priceless, but also typical of everything I have ever heard about Prof. Schelling.

Thomas Schelling was my undergraduate thesis adviser and then doctoral dissertation adviser at Harvard about thirty years ago.  He was also a mentor and friend in the years ahead.  Like many others, my heart breaks at the news of his death.  He was so kind and so brilliant, with a curiosity that was endless.  His insights were profound, as were his contributions to society.  Consider the example of nuclear weapons.  As he expressed in his 2005 Nobel Prize address, “What's so astonishing about the last sixty years?  What’s the most important event that didn’t happen?  [Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] there has been no nuclear weapon used in anger, in warfare, in over sixty years.  Nobody in 1945, 1950, 1955, or 1960 could ever possibly have had any confidence or any belief that we would complete the century with no more use of nuclear weapons, even though nuclear weapons had been acquired by at least eight nations since then.”  For the role that his thinking about strategic interaction played in helping to maintain that nuclear peace alone, our world owes him a profound debt.  It owes him many other debts too.  I pray that his family will find comfort, and that his curiosity, kindness, and ethic of public service will continue to inspire us all.

Tom is a one of those rare people who made a difference in the world and for me, fundamentally focused my thinking about negotiation and peace.  Thank you Tom.  We will miss you.

Professor Schelling has inspired generations of graduate students and junior faculty at the University of Maryland and elsewhere. I was a junior economist when I first met Prof. Schelling - it was his generosity and ability to tackle some of the most complex problems with simple and insighful models that inspired many of us. The public policy field lost one of its giants, but his works will be passed to future generations. 

Prior to 1989, I had read the seminal works of 3 wonderful scholars all of whom by then were in the University of Maryland – College Park (UMD)!  When I joined UMD, Professors Thomas Schelling (April 14, 1921 – December 13, 2016), Mancur Olson (January 22, 1932 – February 19, 1998) and Julian Simon  (February 12, 1932 – February 8, 1998) were as welcoming and accessible as the best one may observe in the Ivy Leagues---others were less so. Despite presistent financial problems, UMD seemed to be experiencing a Golden Age in the early 1990s. Mancur introduced me to Tom, and a colleague from another university to Julian. I learned more during our regular lunch hours in the South Campus Dining Hall's Gazebo Room and the Faculty Club than any class or seminar I had ever attended in the graduate school. Later, I had the pleasure of serving with Tom on the Faculty Senate, where, I was the only one who voted for him to Chair the Senate at the time. Meeting these three generous & wise scholars led me to improve my way of thinking about issues related to  strategic behavior, institutional economics, natural resources, population, immigration, and economic development. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention the examples of their well-known and accessible writings/books that enrich and entertain curious minds:1) Schelling (1978): Micromotives and Macrobehavior2) Olson (1982): The Rise and Decline of Nations 3) Simon (1981): The Ultimate Resource     

I will remember fondly visiting with Professor Schelling in Maryland. He liked to order two glasses of chardonnay, one for him and one for Alice, regardless of whether she was there. He was a generous mentor, always eager to debate ideas and turn problems over in his mind with students. He spent far more hours with me than I ever expected. I am so grateful that he did. I will miss him. 

Professor Schelling was the advisor assigned to me for the major project that the MPP class of 1975 was supposed to complete at the end of our first year.  My project -- helping the Massachusetts State Police write an Equal Opportunity Plan that would increase the participation of women and people of color in the force -- had little to do with economics or statistics as it had been taught at the Kennedy School, but it was enormous fun.  The State Police were a garrulous, charming bunch and I was having a grand old time interviewing them and arguing with them.  But when it came time for my first progress report to the formidable Professor Schelling I was suddenly terror-struck.  He had rendered me practically mute with fear all year long, with his quiet, dead-pan classroom brilliance.  I had never been in a room alone with him.  I was petrified that he would tear me to pieces when I went into that first meeting with no more than a string of anecdotes.  And yet no sooner than I began recounting what I'd been up to than his eyes started twinkling and that funny little smile of his started beaming and I realized that this was a man with a fierce sense of humor and a great appreciation for human foibles.  We met several times as I researched and wrote --  and I had even more fun with him than with the policemen -- sharing strategies and getting tips on how to shape my own arguments.  Ultimately, it all led to a document that was very well-appreciated by the Lieutenant for whom I produced it -- and may even have led to the hiring of a few women and people of color.  And I've been producing "Voices from the Field" reports like that ever since.  It became my metier - one that I would never have discovered found had Professor Schelling not been so receptive, so encouraging, and so willing to show the wonderful man lurking under that steely exterior.

From Dr. Schelling I have learned a lot about game theory and conflict, topics about I wite and teach today. However, from him I have learned other lessons, no less valuable. I learned the humility and particular way geniuses see ordinary events and think. On one occasion, talking about one of his books, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, he told me that one of his motivations for studying human behavior came to him one day when he came to an early auditorium with his wife and sat back, to notice that the people who were arriving were also sitting back. These everyday events that may be irrelevant and imperceptible to any of us, are not to the mind of a genius who, thanks to seeing the everyday in an extraordinary way, like the apple falling from the tree, end up making invaluable contributions for humanity.  

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