Incoming Roux Scholar Receives Honorary Degree from Middlebury

By Rebecca Goldfine
Climate justice expert and advocate Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who will be joining Bowdoin in July as the College's Roux Distinguished Scholar, also gave the commencement address at Middlebury College's graduation.
portrait of Ayana Johnson

In her speech, Johnson exhorted Middlebury's senior class to not just adjust and adapt to the changing environment, but rather to work on "transforming society from extractive to regenerative."

“This is a monumental task," she continued. "And it requires that we focus not on endless analysis of the problem, but on summoning an expansive sense of possibility, on harnessing our imaginations and our creativity.”

She also advised the students to not simply follow their passions, but rather to "go where there is need and where your heart can find a home," for "we live in a pivotal time for preserving life on this magnificent planet."

Middlebury awarded Johnson an honorary doctor of science degree. She will start at Bowdoin in July. Over the course of the three-year position, Johnson will teach classes, give public talks, and engage in a variety of programs and initiatives.

The Roux Distinguished Scholar position enables the College to invite a prominent outside guest to join the Bowdoin community for a period of time to partner with faculty, staff, and students in the study of the environment through an interdisciplinary lens.

Johnson is the cofounder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank examining the issues facing coastal cities, particularly their poorer populations more at risk from rising sea levels and more severe weather. She is also coeditor of the bestselling climate anthology All We Can Save, cocreator of the Spotify/Gimlet climate solutions podcast How to Save a Planet, and coauthor of the Blue New Deal, a climate policy roadmap for addressing the challenges facing the ocean.

Previously, she was executive director of the nonprofit Waitt Institute, developed policy at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and taught as an adjunct professor at New York University. She earned a BA in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University and a PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in marine biology. Her writing has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Scientific American.

In March 2021, Johnson delivered the Kibbe Science Lecture at Bowdoin and spoke about climate science, justice, and policy.