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Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel laureate, “Founding Father” of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Economics professor noted for his work on game theory and arms control, died Tuesday. He was 95.
Schelling’s career at Harvard spanned decades, and his intellectual interests ranged from nuclear war to racial segregation, and—most recently—climate change. Former students and colleagues described Schelling as a brilliant scholar driven to understand the motivations behind human behavior.
“Tom Schelling was a guiding intellectual force in the world and at the Kennedy School,” Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote in an email to Kennedy School affiliates. He described the professor as a “a giant in our own community,” “a generous colleague and incredible mentor,” and “a wonderful person.”
Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62, a Harvard Economics professor who took Schelling’s class “Games and Decisions” as an undergraduate, said he remembers a professor whose insight was pointed and direct, and with thoughts that would often amaze him.
Zeckhauser, remembering how he would react to Schelling’s work, said he would often think, “Damn, I wish I had said that. Now that he says it it’s obvious, but no one had bothered to think about it in advance.”
The impact of Schelling’s research was dramatic, according to colleagues. His 1960 book “The Strategy of Conflict” argued that the United States and the Soviet Union shared an interest in avoiding nuclear war and prompted the two Cold War powers to set up a direct phone line, Elmendorf said.
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was inspired to make “Dr. Strangelove,” a satirical film about the Cold War, after reading one of Schelling's articles about literary representations of nuclear war. Kubrick even came to Harvard to discuss the film's plot with Schelling.
Born in 1921 in Oakland, Calif., Schelling attended University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate before earning a Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard in 1951. He became a professor at Harvard in 1958 and spent 31 years as faculty member.
Schelling “wrote in a style that could be understood by broad audiences, despite the originality, brilliance, and rigorous underpinnings of what he was saying,” Zeckhauser wrote when Schelling was elected a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association in 1987. “Perhaps because he stayed away from the ‘Journal of Advanced Economic Gobbledygook,’ Schelling's pathbreaking conceptual work received less attention from his home discipline than it deserved.”
But Schelling did receive academic recognition. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded him the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.”
Because Schelling’s research interests did not fit entirely into an economics, statistics, or political science department, he and other self-described “distinguished misfits” in academia including Richard E. Neustadt, Philip B. Heymann, Howard Raiffa, C. Frederick Mosteller, and Francis M. Bator helped revitalize and reshape Kennedy School in 1969, according to Graham T. Allison ’62, a Kennedy School professor and its former dean.
“While having one foot planted squarely in their discipline, they simultaneously wanted to venture forth with the other to a new frontier: a professional School of public policy and government,” Allison wrote in an email to Kennedy School affiliates.
Students say Schelling, namesake of the “Schelling steps” that surround the Kennedy School atrium, was a committed and demanding teacher.
“You would send him a paper and you wouldn’t hear anything for two weeks,” Zeckhauser said.“He would write back a three page single-spaced document talking about your paper, which was more insightful than anything you said in your paper.”
Schelling continued writing until his death, with much of his writing about threats of climate change.
He is survived by his wife and four sons.
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