Alice Rivlin, a leading government economist and the first woman to serve as the nation’s budget director, a cabinet-level position, died of cancer May 14 at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 88.
In addition to a career studded with top-level appointments, teaching posts at Harvard and Georgetown, and 22 books, Ms. Rivlin was also one of the first faculty members hired to teach at The Institute of Public Policy (TIPP) at George Mason University in 1992. TIPP is now the Schar School of Policy and Government.
“She helped design the curriculum and gave special attention to our early female students, both as a teacher and researcher, and as an activist role model,” said Kingsley E. Haynes, TIPP’s first director and the first dean of what became the School of Public Policy at Mason. “She joined Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminist Mystique, in providing leadership both in faculty development and student engagement.
“She was unrivaled as a teacher, researcher, student guide, and spokesperson for the importance of effective urban management,” he added.
Ms. Rivlin came to Mason from her position at the Brookings Institution and helped develop programs in urban and regional analysis, with a focus on urban governance, Haynes said. She was the first to sit in the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair at Mason.
“She was a highlight in the development of the Institute of Public Policy at Mason until the newly elected President Bill Clinton stole her away to head the Office of Management and Budget,” said James Pfiffner, a University Professor at the Schar School who met Ms. Rivlin at Brookings in the mid-1970s.
“Above all, she was a leader and an advocate for rational public policy, based on solid research and sound management,” he added.
Ms. Rivlin’s 1993 book, Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States, and the Federal Government, was prescient regarding public policies, with many of her ideas continuing to resonate today.
“It was a major departure in how state governments work. Her idea was to take all the public policies and divide them between the states and the federal government,” said James Riggle, who studied with Ms. Rivlin as a PhD student at TIPP and whose dissertation was on the future of American Federalism.
Ms. Rivlin proposed the states fund a “productivity agenda” of education, transportation, and other local public needs while the federal government accounted for defense, international affairs and finance, trade, and significantly, “taking full responsibility for health care,” Riggle said. “That’s what drove Alice and I together.”
Ms. Rivlin joined Mason’s TIPP at a time when the institute was just getting off the ground. The first offices for the professors of the unit were in a temporary trailer on the Fairfax Campus.
“We saw that as a badge of courage,” said Riggle, who eventually became associate research professor at the school (2001-2011). “We were producing scholarship that could compete with the big-name schools” despite the occasional whiff of the feral cats that lived under the trailer.
When Ms. Rivlin arrived at TIPP, Riggle recalled, “she was already as extremely well-known in applied public policy as it gets.” Still, he said, “she was very friendly, very open, and you could just come in and sit down with her in her office…There was a true atmosphere of collegiality.”
Ms. Rivlin left TIPP in 1993 to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Clinton. She eventually became director of OMB and vice-chair of the Federal Reserve.
In 2010 she was the inaugural speaker at the Schar School's Kingsley E. Haynes Distinguished Lecture Series. In 2015 she was presented with the Schar School’s Centers on the Public Service’s inaugural Federal Budgeting Career Legacy Award, which recognizes a career of “important and lasting contributions” to the budget process and institutions of the federal government.