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Judith Tendler, professor emerita in urban studies and planning, dies at 77

With an optimistic outlook, Tendler combined development economics and organizational theory to advise governments.
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Judith Tendler
Judith Tendler

Judith Tendler, professor emerita in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), passed away on July 24 at the age of 77.

Tendler was a development economist with an institutional bent. Starting in 1984, she served as professor of political economy in DUSP's International Development Group.

She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Michigan, followed by PhD work at Columbia University on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. Before coming to MIT, she served as a program economist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, first in Rio de Janeiro and then at USAID's Latin America Bureau, carrying out various field evaluations. Following this work she carried out various field-evaluation research studies in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, South Africa, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Curaçao (Netherlands Antilles), and Egypt.

At MIT, Tendler ran five comparative research projects in Brazil that combined her field research with teaching, all funded by different Brazilian and international public agencies. These ventures led to various publications, dissertations, and theses. For this work, MIT awarded her two prizes in different years: the Irwin Sizer prize for “the most significant improvement in education at MIT,” and the Class of 1960 Award and Chair for “distinguished contributions to the instructional program and superbly innovative and effective work in educating graduate students under field conditions.”

“Judith was among the most innovative and heterodox development economists — and she was a real planner, because she always looked for ways to make incremental changes respecting organizational cultures," says Bish Sanyal, professor and former head of the department. "Her combination of knowledge of development economics and organizational theory had an optimistic outlook: When asked to advise so many governments she always looked first for something positive, then acknowledged the constraints facing the governments, and then proposed something as if those governments were already doing it. We have lost a brilliant mind and a dear friend.”

In addition to numerous articles and other works, she published three books: "Good Government in the Tropics," "Inside Foreign Aid," and "Electric Power in Brazil: Entrepreneurship in the Public Sector."

Tendler retired from MIT in 2011, and her work and career were celebrated in a widely attended academic festschrift. (To learn more about this special event, and to download many of Judith's writings, visit her festschrift page.)

A memorial to celebrate her life will be held at MIT this fall.

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