Dean of inspiration

Gage Averill, the new dean of  UBC’s Faculty of Arts, can’t help but bring  a little rock-and-roll attitude with him.

Averill has the sterling academic credentials you’d expect from someone who will lead one of Canada’s largest faculties, including administrative and professorial stints at Columbia, Wesleyan, New York University and most recently the University of Toronto, as Vice Principal Academic and Dean for its Mississauga campus.

But to lead a place as big and diverse as the Faculty of Arts—with more than 15,000 students, faculty and staff engaged in the entire spectrum of social sciences, humanities and performing arts—takes a broad foundation of experiences.

And Averill has no shortage of diverse experiences. A world-renowned ethnomusicologist and scholar of Haitian music, he has toured in bands, worked on soundtracks for Hollywood movies,  lived in Haiti following the overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, kayaked competitively, and even took a break from university in his 20s to work as a community housing organizer and tractor driver.

These formative experiences—many outside academia in communities across Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean—have made Averill an outspoken proponent of making Canadian universities more responsive to society, bolder and less defensive. If that comes across a little rock-and-roll, so be it.

“The global challenges facing Canada won’t be solved with minor, incremental changes,” says Averill, who was named UBC’s 16th Dean of Arts on July 1, replacing Nancy Gallini. “We need to be globally connected, recruiting globally, and expansive in our thinking—and certainly willing to shake things up—if we are to succeed.”

Universities should be working to advance the national agenda, not lagging behind it, says Averill, 53. “We must  keep pace with social and technological change, otherwise we will always be  ‘running behind the taptap (bus),’” he says, making his point with a popular Haitian expression.

Averill says UBC’s progressive nature and location made moving his wife and their daughter to the west coast an easy decision. “In the academic world, you see which universities are doing exciting things; setting themselves apart from the pack,” he says. “For me that is UBC. I’m very happy to be part of something special here.”

Calling Vancouver “a city of the future,” Averill believes the Asia-Pacific rim represents limitless opportunities for intercultural learning, partnerships and research. Although born in Greenwich, Connecticut, he studied at the University of Washington and calls this a homecoming of sorts. “This region has always had a great call for me.”

Averill calls the first week of his six-year term at UBC unforgettable: playing the Rock Band video game with students, getting blown away by the “Rolling Stones-calibre production” of UBC’s Imagine Pep Rally and winning a Deans’ debate. Since then he’s been developing a plan with stakeholders for the years ahead at the Faculty.

With the Faculty of Arts already a global powerhouse in social sciences and humanities research, the plan aims to put it at the forefront of teaching, learning, research and performance in North America. It involves three key areas: excellence in teaching and learning, global partnerships and community engagement.

Making the plan a reality will take creative management and strong teamwork, Averill says, qualities he’s embraced ever since organizing low-income housing and major music festivals in his 20s and 30s.

“The true magic of universities unfolds in classrooms, the community and through research,” says Averill, who plays percussion and free reed instruments such as the concertina. “But to make the magic happen, you need a skilled, progressive support structure. That’s what I am here to do: to encourage creative new approaches, leverage points of interest and inspire talented people to make great things happen.”


The Haiti Film Footage

These six films, three in black and white and two in colour, were taken by Alan and his wife Elizabeth in Léogane and Carrefour Dufort, Haiti, in April of 1937.  They include footage of 1) a rara band, a processional group related to Vodou societies, that parades in the months from Carnival to Easter. 2) a feast for a “familiy” of deities in the Kongo-Petwo branch of Vodou ((Afro-Haitian religion) that were thought to be plaguing a local family for decades, 3) a local society that hosted annual dances, 4) a contredance with drum accompaniment, 5) a singer named Francilia, 6) a “Rada Vodou” ceremony.

The contemporary film was taken from the same ceremony as the picture labeled above — a Rada and Kongo Vodou ceremony at the Lakou Bawon in Léogane to welcome the recordings back to Haiti.