Oster served as dean of Yale SOM from November 2008 until June 2011. She took the helm under trying circumstances. The previous dean, Joel Podolny, had left unexpectedly before the end of his term, and then-Yale President Richard Levin turned to Oster in order to bring continuity as well as energy and strategic acumen to the role. It turned out to be a pivotal decision for the school.
Yale SOM had recently launched a highly distinctive integrated MBA curriculum, but the approach was new and required heavy investments of faculty time and other resources to maintain. Oster decided to put the effort in to solidify and fine-tune the core, adding courses as needed and adjusting content. Strengthened at a key moment, the integrated curriculum remains the bedrock of the MBA program today.
Oster also oversaw much of the fundraising and planning for Edward P. Evans Hall—ground was broken for the new campus in the final months of her deanship—and helped ensure that the building would reflect the character of SOM and the approach needed to effectively teach the integrated curriculum.
When Oster became dean, multiple sources of income had been severely impacted by the financial crisis and the school faced projected deficits. In her first year, she steered the school into the black without sacrificing its core functions of teaching and research.
That set a pattern. The school finished the fiscal year with a surplus each year she was dean. And subsequent leaders built on what became a tradition of prudent fiscal management; the school now has a 14-year streak of avoiding deficits. At the same time, Oster managed to strengthen and grow the full-time faculty.
William N. Goetzmann ’86, the Edwin J. Beinecke Professor of Finance and Management Studies, said that Oster brought a number of skills to the deanship, including the insights gained from years of studying nonprofit strategy. “When the time came for her to step up as dean of the school, she was an inspiring, and remarkably successful leader. She was fearless in the realm we euphemistically call ‘development’—perhaps because she understood better than anyone the connection between nonprofit organizations and mission-interested donors.”
In the dean’s seat as in the classroom, Oster remained focused on helping students. Leading the school through the deepest economic downturn in a lifetime, she faced a depressed job market. Oster pledged $100,000 of her own salary to fund student internships at Yale, and she relentlessly worked her networks of former students and colleagues to turn up opportunities.
Stanley Garstka, now a professor in the practice emeritus of management, worked closely with Oster through this period as the school’s deputy dean. He said that Oster stood out as a leader because of both her expertise and her character. “It is always easy to work with someone who you admire and respect,” Garstka said. “Rather than just list a bunch of her accomplishments, which are many, I would rather note the marvelous attributes she possessed as a person—honesty, loyalty, intelligence, integrity, and her basic respect for people. Sharon knew who and what she was and lived her personal and professional lives accordingly. Even if we were to initially disagree with each other, we could reach a common ground and feel good about it, and about each other. You could never question Sharon’s loyalty to the school and its mission.”
When Oster stepped down as dean, her colleagues in the economics group, spearheaded by Fiona Scott Morton and Judith Chevalier, asked the alumni of the school to relate anecdotes that demonstrated how Oster’s teaching continued to benefit them. Tributes flowed in. Over and over, former students described how the lessons in economics that they absorbed in Oster’s classroom still shaped their thinking and led to both professional and personal triumphs.
Valued Friend and Collaborator
When Oster retired from active teaching in 2018, the school needed someone to teach the Nonprofit Strategy course, which had become a mainstay at the school. Judith Chevalier, a longtime colleague and friend, stepped in, cherishing the opportunity to co-teach the course with Oster for one semester. Their students recognized what a meaningful transition Oster’s retirement was, Chevalier remembered. “The students asked me what we were doing to commemorate Sharon’s last official SOM class, and I told them that Sharon had forbidden me to make too much of it, but that I would not prevent the students from undertaking some modest expression of their gratitude,” she said. “The students brought in homemade flags with Sharon’s picture on them, one of them led a procession playing the bagpipes, and they presented Sharon with a glass case with a replica of Wonder Woman’s crown.”
Will Goetzmann knew Oster first as a teacher when he attended SOM and later as a faculty colleague. The two coauthored papers about university endowments and art museums. “She was great fun to work with,” he said. “She understood research as serious play, and as an intellectual partnership. Anyone who knew her will know her dry, delightful humor and great conversation. I will deeply miss simply hanging out with Sharon Oster.”
Edward H. Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Operations Research, was a colleague and “dear friend” of Oster’s for 35 years, and regularly started his mornings having coffee with Oster and Stan Garstka. “Sharon was a loyal friend,” Kaplan said. “I will never forget her (and Stan) accompanying me to Sloan Kettering dealing with my own health issues or being the first to console me when my mother died in 1991. She loved her family dearly and regularly updated me on their accomplishments, experiences, and vacations. She took special pleasure in telling me all about her grandchildren (and how they were already learning probability with pillows shaped like probability distributions!).”
Oster was completely devoted to her family. She and her husband, Ray Fair, also an economist, were married for 45 years. They raised three children—Emily Oster, Stephen Fair, and John Oster—in a home filled with love and, also, some economics. One of her children recalled being told the reason that the family had their groceries delivered was because Sharon and Ray had a “high opportunity cost of time.” That her family has stayed close as they became adults was among Oster’s greatest joys and a source of great pride. She is survived by her children and eight grandchildren, with one more on the way.
Oster’s influence is sure to live on in many ways, most poignantly in the memories of the many family members, faculty, students, and alumni who owe her a debt of gratitude. Judith Chevalier said, “Sharon could always be relied upon for the best advice. Anything—something having to do with my kids, a referee, some sticky situation with the university. Recently a colleague from another school cited some excellent advice I had given him years ago that he found very important. I had to chuckle because it was just advice from Sharon that I had recycled and given to him.”
Oster’s name will also live on in one especially fitting way. In 2018, a group of Yale College and Yale SOM alumni, faculty colleagues, and other supporters made it possible for the school to create an endowed chair in economics in her honor—the Sharon Oster Professorship.
Former Yale President Richard Levin said at the time, “This permanent recognition ensures that Sharon’s accomplishments—as a legendary teacher and colleague, and as the first woman to serve as our dean—will never be forgotten. For generations of future students and scholars, the Sharon Oster Professorship will be—as Sharon herself has been for us—an inspiration.”
In lieu of flowers, Oster’s family asks that you please consider a donation to Achievement First. Sharon Oster cared deeply about education and not only dedicated her career to teaching but was also passionate about providing high-quality educational opportunities to everyone, regardless of means.