In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Judy Layzer

We are saddened to report the news that our colleague and friend Professor Judy Layzer passed away on Thursday, May 28, 2015. She was 53 years old.

Layzer had been on the faculty of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) since 2003, and had served as associate head of the department since 2014.

Layzer’s research explored the politics of environmental policies, and the role of science in shaping public debate on these matters. Scientific evidence, as she detailed in many of her writings, provides a powerful foundation for environmental advocacy — but policies do not always simply follow from that science, she noted, since disputes over the environment are often contested between groups with differing or opposing values. In this context, Layzer concluded, the quality of environmental advocacy matters greatly.

For instance, those combating climate change — a position Layzer supported publicly — needed a “politically compelling story” to gain more support, as she wrote in a Boston Review article in 2012.

“You have to fight ideas with ideas,” Layzer added in a 2013 interview with MIT News.

Within the field of environmental policy and politics, Layzer’s work ranged widely across topics, including clean air and clean water regulations, land protection, species conservation, and climate change. She had also become increasingly focused on issues of urban sustainability, including studies of food systems.

Layzer wrote three books and published numerous articles, among other scholarly accomplishments, while teaching highly regarded classes to MIT undergraduates and graduate students.

Layzer’s colleagues remember her as a person driven by a strong sense of ethics and possessing exceptional intellectual qualities.

“Besides being a brilliant scholar and exceptional writer, Judy was also a dedicated — and demanding — teacher,” says Professor Eran Ben-Joseph, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “She was an inspiration and a role model precisely because she expected the best from her students, her colleagues, and herself. She was tough, but always fair; stern, but always caring.”

Ben-Joseph adds: “Judy was motivated by intellectual curiosity and a zest for academic inquiry, but more importantly she was driven by an underlying sense of ethics and a core belief that we would be wrong — period, no qualifiers — to destroy the planet and its natural systems. She was a true friend who would often make you laugh and a scientist who would always make you think. She was a person of genuine integrity who will be sorely missed.”

Influential work, popular teaching

Layzer received her undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan in 1985, and her PhD in 1999 from MIT’s Department of Political Science. Her doctoral thesis, “Sense and Credibility,” examined a series of environmental-protection disputes, ranging from the controversy over acid rain to restoration of the Florida Everglades.

In her work, Layzer detailed how science is a foundation for environmental advocacy, while noting that policy decisions are often settled by the relative strengths of the opposing coalitions. However, science-based advocacy, she asserted, can influence the strength of those opposing groups.

Her thesis research became part of her first book, “The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy” (CQ Press, 2002), an influential work now in its third edition; Layzer added considerable new material, on climate change and other topics, to the later editions.

Layzer’s second book, “Natural Experiments” (MIT Press, 2008), examined whether recent approaches to conservation across the U.S. have been effective; she concluded that some of these programs are less likely to produce environmental improvements than policies enacted through traditional top-down political means. 

In her 2012 book, “Open for Business” (MIT Press), Layzer examined how conservatives sometimes have succeeded in environmental debates by tapping into, among other things, public mistrust of regulation to argue for opening up federal lands for further development.

Layzer taught at Middlebury College from 1998 until 2003, when she rejoined MIT as an assistant professor in DUSP. She was promoted to associate professor in 2007, and to full professor in 2014; she also became head of MIT’s Environmental Policy and Planning Group in 2010. 

Layzer gave talks at academic and policy conferences both around the U.S. and internationally. Awards she received included the Lynton B. Caldwell Prize for best book in environmental politics and policy; the John C. Donovan Prize for Best Paper, awarded by the New England Political Science Association; the 2013 DUSP Graduate Student Council Advising Award; and the 2008 
MIT Graduate Student Council Teaching Award.

Layzer supervised or read dozens of master’s and PhD theses in DUSP, and taught a wide range of courses, including the popular course 11.002J (Making Public Policy), as well as others on science and politics, energy politics, ecosystem management, and food systems.

Outside the classroom, Layzer was known to friends (and competitors) as a world-class ultimate frisbee player. The Boston-based club team she played for, known as “Lady Godiva,” won the U.S. national championship seven times between 1995 and 2002, and won the world championship in 1998.

Layzer is survived by her parents, David and Jean Layzer, and by her four siblings: Carolyn, Emily, Nicholas, and Jonathan.

On Saturday, October 17, 2015, the Department hosted a memorial event to celebrate Judy's life.


Our thoughts go out to her family and loved ones, and to each other, knowing how much this loss will affect our entire community.

Donations in her memory can be made to Grub Street, which has established a scholarship to support an advanced writer "whose writing embodies Judy's unique spirit: fierce, honest, brave, and provocative."


Una Pérdida/ loss para/ for MIT/ Community Paz a sus restos/ rest in Peace
We should be lucky to have collegues and friends think of us when we part, as we all do of Prof. Layzer. A meaningful life as a teacher and a scholar, concerned with matters of utmost importance to us all. She shall be missed.
Judy was a wonderful professor, mentor, and thesis adviser. I'm saddened to hear of her passing and deeply grateful that I was able to learn from her.
I am saddened to hear that Professor Judy Layzer passed away. Professor Layzer was my master's thesis advisor at DUSP. During the time I was a graduate student at MIT, she helped me to see beyond the obvious and ask the important questions. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be her student.
During my time at MIT, I had the privilege of being on Judy's research team, having her as my thesis advisor, and taking her classes. In all of these, Judy challenged me and my fellow students to be rigorous in our thinking and clear in the presentation of our work and our ideas. Judy had high expectations of her students, and in return, she gave them much of herself. What was at stake, for Judy, was more than just grammatical mis-steps or mere methodological procedure. What was at stake for Judy was the ability of humans to communicate about and take action on the dire problems of our time. Although the two years that I knew Judy were brief, my encounters with her were frequent and meaningful. I can't put into words all of the ways that Judy has influenced me intellectually, personally, and professionally, as a mentor, a role model, and as a simply inspiring woman. I will miss her diligence, her compassion, and her presence on this earth that she worked so hard to protect.
Judy Layzer was my closest friend during our childhoods and young adulthood. As sad as I am that we have lost her, it gives me such pleasure to know what a stellar professor she was at MIT. As a professor myself, I know what an accomplishment it is to be considered "the best" as a scholar and as a teacher, as your testimonies illuminate. I wanted to add that Judy had these qualities her entire life--pushing those around her, in more subtle ways as a younger person, to reach our potential not only intellectually but, more importantly, as people--to love those in our life as fiercely as we embrace and work for what we know matters in the world. Always an incredible friend, her sense of humor and ability to know and remind us that a good life is more than academic success were fundamental to my own growth and building of an academic career. Knowing that she was not only a scholar but, most importantly, an extraordinarily thoughtful and dedicated (and tough!) teacher, is a solace and a marvelous memoriam to a woman who lived life so well.
Such sad news. After reading her case studies in my undergraduate coursework (she was my TA at MIT; I still have the photocopied spiral bound version), I now use them in the courses I teach today. She'll be missed.
Dr. Layzer was on my Research Supervisory Committee and I am very grateful for the two years during which I got to work with her and learn from her. She was a truly unique individual who understood what is really needed to solve our global environmental problems. She was passionate about what she believed and, at the same time, so wise in the way she conveyed her message. We need to make sure that we act on what we learned from her and that we honor her legacy, making the world a more sustainable place just as she would have wanted us to.