Remembering Tony Atkinson
To the Members of our LIS Community – Board members, former staff, data users, colleagues, friends;
It is with immense sadness that we report the death of our Board President, Sir Tony Atkinson. Tony died in Oxford, England, on 1 January 2017, at the age of 72, after a battle with myeloma. We had long been concerned about his health and we knew that this day would eventually come, but it arrived sooner than we, and others, expected. Like so many of Tony’s admirers and colleagues around the world, our hearts are heavy.
Tony had a long and extraordinary career. He is widely referred to as the founder of modern inequality scholarship. His much-celebrated work – theoretical, empirical, methodological, and policy-oriented – inspired generations of scholars, especially in Europe and the US. Tony’s remarkable and unique career has been chronicled in many places, before and since his death. So we will not focus here on his professional biography. We prefer to share some thoughts about his contributions to LIS, in his role as our Board President, a position that he held for five years to the day, from 1 January 2012 until the day of his death.
When Tony agreed to become LIS’ Board President, we were grateful. We knew that we were fortunate to have such an esteemed scholar at the helm. What we did not know (but, in retrospect, should have) was that he would serve as a deeply involved, entirely hands-on, active President – making himself available for counsel on countless decisions, large and small.
Tony chaired our annual Board and Executive Committee meetings, brilliantly keeping discussions flowing and aiding decision-making. Throughout the years, we consulted him about LIS’ overall strategies and priorities, seeking his input about how to best allocate our scarce resources, and whether and when to move into new areas of work. We sought his advice on data issues, on measurement concerns, on our presentation of aggregate statistics, on the challenges of microdata dissemination. We asked for his ideas on fundraising, on budgeting, on personnel decisions, on public events, on European data politics. We invited him to serve on search committees and to join us at public events. We called upon him to help persuade statistical offices to provide datasets for LIS. We requested his views as we balanced the work between our two offices. We invited him to spend a week visiting the US Office of LIS, so that he could meet the team there and help us strategize about our ancillary work on the American side of the Atlantic.
Always, without exception, Tony engaged with us as if he had all the time in the world – which, of course, he did not – and as if no question were too small. His advice meant the world to us. Whatever the issue, he would bring his decades of experience to bear as he raised key questions for discussion. What would lead to the highest quality harmonized data? How could we balance data access with data protection? What would most enhance our users’ capacity to carry out their research? What would make most sense for the LIS staff? What would be most equitable for all involved? Did we have the bandwidth?
When Tony held a strong view, he would convey it directly, providing his reasoning. (And when Tony held a strong view, as his many fans know, he was not readily dislodged from it.) In the end, Tony gave us more time and wisdom than we could have ever hoped for or imagined. And he did it with grace, and elegance, and with his quiet wry wit. He also served as a welcome cheerleader, sending celebratory emails about our achievements. He weighed in when the world beyond our walls bewildered us all; recent political and policy developments in the UK and elsewhere worried him deeply.
In recent years, as Tony’s health faltered, he generously thought about LIS’ future. He spoke with me many times about how we could most effectively strengthen our small organization, and how to best secure our future.
Tony was gratified by his two final accomplishments at LIS.
First, during the latter half of his tenure, we concluded that LIS had grown too large for a single Director and he guided me – all of us – through a reorganization of our leadership. With the agreement of our Board, we decided to search for a new senior scholar and leader, one who would direct the Luxembourg Office of LIS. (I would shift to directing only the US Office). Tony played a central role in designing this new position and in assembling a stellar international search committee. He was extremely pleased and relieved when Professor Daniele Checchi agreed to take on this new role, one that he assumed on 1 September 2016.
Second, in July 2016, Tony told us that the time had come: we had to begin the process of bringing in a new President. Tony hoped that the handover would take place, in Luxembourg, at our 2017 Board meeting. He asked us, with his characteristic modesty, if we wanted his view as to who might be his ideal successor; of course, we did. He had a single scholar in mind, one who has agreed to serve beginning in early 2017. The LIS leadership is completing the requisite legal process now – that is, an election by our full Board – and we expect to announce Tony’s successor in mid-January.
All of the “long-timers” at LIS are grateful for the role that Tony played in securing our two new senior colleagues. This autumn, Tony told me that Daniele’s arrival in 2016, and a new President’s expected arrival in 2017, allowed him to rest easily in regard to LIS’ future.
We extend our sympathies to Tony’s wife Judith Atkinson, to his children – Richard, Charles, and Sarah – and to his eight grandchildren, whom he so openly adored. We also send condolences to Tony’s many friends and colleagues in the global community of inequality scholars. We share our sadness with so many who loved and admired him as much as we did. It is not easy to say goodbye to Tony. We will miss him more than words can convey.
Further remembrances will follow.
Yours sincerely, and on behalf of the LIS team,
Director of LIS, 2006-2016
Director of US Office of LIS, 2016-