Labor economist Robert Aronson dies at 104

Known for contributions that shaped the ILR School in its first decades, a gentle manner and long-running friendships with peers, Professor Emeritus Robert “Bob” Aronson died April 19 at age 104 at Bridges Cornell Heights, Ithaca.

He was the last surviving faculty member from the school’s first years and a labor economist who saved money to enter Ohio State University by pausing his education after high school to work in a Harley-Davidson dealership, a foundry and department stores.

The son of Eastern European immigrants, he interrupted his graduate studies at Ohio State University to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve as a B-24 navigator in World War II. After the war, he earned a doctorate at Princeton University.

He arrived at ILR in 1950, five years after its 1945 founding. At Cornell, Aronson’s scholarship bloomed. He edited the school’s peer-reviewed journal and formed lifelong friendships with colleagues, some of whom celebrated his 100th birthday with him.

Robert Aronson

“Bob Aronson was a key faculty member in the development of ILR’s labor economics department,” said Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean and the Martin F. Scheinman ’75, ’M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution at the ILR School. “He had a longstanding influence on future generations of economists at ILR and is remembered with great fondness by the faculty who knew him.”

When George Boyer, the Martin P. Catherwood Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the ILR School, shared news of his colleague’s death in an email, he wrote, “Somehow, to me, this seems like the end of an era.”

When Aronson retired, he told the labor economics faculty that the final years of his career were the happiest because he learned so much from his younger colleagues, recalled Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics. “I was very moved by his remarks and since then I worked hard to support younger colleagues.”

David Lipsky ’61, the Anne Evans Estabrook Professor of Dispute Resolution and former ILR dean, said that as an undergraduate he so enjoyed Aronson’s labor economics class that he decided to forego a law degree and pursue a doctorate in economics.

A letter of recommendation from Aronson helped Lipsky land a fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where four of his classmates went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences. “It is no exaggeration to say that Bob changed my life dramatically,” Lipsky said.

After retiring in 1983, Aronson remained active in his field, authoring “Self-Employment: A Labor Market Perspective,” published by ILR Press in 1991. He continued his friendships with ILR professors, frequently lunching with them at the Statler Hotel into his 90s.

Public service abroad and in Ithaca was part of Aronson’s career. He and his family spent a summer in Ghana, where he served as a consultant on public sector wage policy to the newly installed government, and a Fulbright research fellowship took them to Jamaica.

He was a board member of the Ithaca Memorial Society and Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County, chair of the Town of Ithaca Ethics Board and a Literacy Volunteers of Tompkins County volunteer.

Aronson was a visiting professor at Ohio State University, the University of Louisville, the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. He published 22 books and monographs on areas such as the effect of industrial and technological change on workers, unions, labor markets and self-employment.

Aronson is survived by his daughters, Elizabeth Aronson of Syracuse, and Michal Aronson and her husband, Jules Keitt of Ossining, and their son, Joshua Keitt of St. Petersburg, Florida; along with stepchildren and step-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Judith Rosenthal Aronson, who died in 1992, and his second wife, Nancy Pettengill Bent, who died in 2000.

There will not be a funeral. A gathering for family, friends and colleagues will be held at a later time. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hospicare and Palliative Care Services of Ithaca or Amnesty International, Group 73.

Mary Catt is director of communications at the ILR School.

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Rebecca Valli