New professorship honors Adams ’62, co-founder of NRDC

May 30, 2017Duke Law News

Duke Law graduate John Adams ’62

Friends of John Adams ’62, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have endowed a new professorship in his honor at Duke Law.

The John H. Adams Clinical Professorship has been established with commitments of more than $500,000 from individuals. Matching funds of $500,000 from The Duke Endowment through the Duke Law Faculty Endowment Challenge Fund will bring the total amount raised to more than $1 million.

Dean David F. Levi announced the professorship at a presentation to Duke Law reunion attendees on Apr. 8.

“As one of the creators of the nation’s environmental law movement, John Adams has worked for more than four decades to ensure that our vital natural resources are protected from damage,” Levi said. “We are exceptionally proud of John and his legacy in the law and delighted that his friends and family have chosen to honor his groundbreaking work with a professorship at his alma mater.”

The announcement came as a surprise to Adams, who was attending his 55th Duke Law class reunion. “Duke has meant a lot to me over the years,” he said. “I feel very lucky.”

A federal prosecutor and former Wall Street lawyer, Adams joined with friends in 1970 to start NRDC, the first advocacy group to fight pollution and environmental degradation through the courts. As the organization’s first executive director and later its president, Adams oversaw litigation and lobbying to ensure that the nation’s early environmental laws had teeth and addressed pressing issues such as acid rain, the rise of greenhouse gasses, and the endangerment of wildlife. NRDC now boasts more than 2 million members, employs more than 500 lawyers and scientists, and operates offices around the world.

“John Adams has mentored legions of environmental lawyers over the decades; it is wonderful that his leadership in the field of environmental law is being recognized at Duke through the Adams Clinical Professorship,” said Frances Beinecke, NRDC’s former president and one of the donors to the fund.

In 2010, President Obama awarded Adams the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “His tenure is unparalleled by the leader of any other environmental organization,” the president said in a statement.

Adams stepped down from NRDC’s leadership in 2006 but remains actively involved in the organization, and he also chairs the Board of Trustees of the Open Space Institute. With his wife, Patricia Adams, he co-authored a memoir, A Force for Nature: The Story of the NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet (Chronicle Books, 2011). 

Adams, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Duke University in 2005, is a member of the Duke Law Board of Visitors and that of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. In 2007, he was a co-founder of Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, in which students from the Law School and the Nicholas School work under the supervision of faculty to represent nonprofit organizations involved in issues and litigation related to water quality, air quality, natural resources conservation, and environmental justice.

“I have a particular love for clinical law,” Adams said. “I learn things a different way. I need experience. I need to see what’s going on for me to really understand how to get things done. In my view, clinical education is the way for people like me to be able to have an impact.”

The John H. Adams Clinical Professorship is the fifth new professorship created through the Duke Law Faculty Endowment Challenge Fund. The fund was launched in 2015 with a $5 million grant from The Duke Endowment to establish new professor, professor of the practice, and clinical professor positions at Duke Law.

The commitments for the John H. Adams Clinical Professorship advance the university’s $3.25 billion Duke Forward fundraising campaign. The campaign, which will conclude in June, supports priorities across Duke’s 10 schools, Duke Medicine, and a range of university programs and initiatives. To date, Duke Law has raised over $122 million in the campaign in support of its faculty, students, and programs.