Star Anthropologist Wade Davis a Big Get For UBC

Wade Davis, UBC | BCBusiness

Author, photographer and filmmaker Wade Davis plans to teach undergraduates and advocate on resource issues

Despite counting three Premiers, two Prime Ministers and two BCBusiness editors among its graduates, UBC still has a prestige problem. It’s especially acute south of the border—ask a Harvard student to name an elite Canadian university and they’ll inevitably name that under-funded has-been McGill. Never mind that UBC tied them for 31st place in this year’s Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. Maybe a blockbuster hire will be the answer. And there are few bigger gets in the world of anthropology than Wade Davis.

Davis is to people as Suzuki is to the natural world: an author, thinker and speaker who has been a transformative force in his field. (They were also both born in Vancouver and educated at top-tier U.S. schools.) A National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence since 1999, Davis has authored numerous best-sellers, including Into the Silence, which earned him a 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize. The Serpent and the Rainbow catapulted him to fame in 1985 with a mesmerizing exploration of Haitian zombies and the secret voodoo society devoted to them.

For those who think he’ll just be a name on the door of an empty office at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, Davis insists he intends to teach undergraduates, telling The Globe and Mail, “I want students to know why anthropology matters, why culture matters.” He arrives at UBC in July 2014 as a professor in the department of anthropology, and he plans to spend half of each academic year teaching. The other half he’ll spend travelling, writing and speaking.

He’s also eager play a more prominent role in public debates around resource issues, and if his recent lobbying efforts against development in the Sacred Headwaters (those of the Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers) are any indication, mining and energy companies won’t be welcoming his arrival.

If you’re not familiar with his work, here are three of Davis’s greatest hits to get you up to speed:

1) In 2009, he delivered a series of five lectures called The Wayfinders in five Canadian cities as part of the CBC’s venerable Massey Lectures series. At UBC’s Chan Centre, for the second of the series, he spoke to a sold-out crowd about Polynesian seafarers. All five are available from iTunes.

2) For a taste of what we might expect from his advocacy on resource issues, watch his recent TED Talk on The Sacred Headwaters. He’s given three TED Talks, all of which are online and worth a watch.

 3) If his photography book Light At The Edge Of The World isn’t already on your coffee table, it should be. And if it is, you’re welcome; now you can cross someone off your Christmas shopping list.