One-on-One is an ongoing series aimed at getting ‘behind the scenes’ with senior leadership at UBC.
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Gage Averill is the dean of Arts, UBC’s largest Faculty. While his career began in Forestry, a move to the University of Washington marked the beginning of a career in ethnomusicology (the study of music in its cultural context), which – in addition to earning him a Grammy nomination – has taken him from Columbia University to Wesleyan, New York University, and the University of Toronto before taking the helm of UBC’s Faculty of Arts in 2010.
What quality do you most admire in a leader?
GA: Integrity and honesty. I admire people who are humble and don’t use their leadership as a way of lording over people. I also have a deep respect for leaders who are curious and continue to learn. And I don’t think anyone would be a good leader if they couldn’t get things done.
What makes you laugh?
GA: My work often makes me laugh. I have a great team and we often close the door at the end of the day and laugh together.
I laugh a lot at home too. My wife is from Trinidad where they have a tradition called “liming”, which means using language to make fun of things. When I’m with my family, we lime a lot.
As for the kind of comedy I like, I’m a big fan of the American comedian Steven Wright. I really like his intellectually challenging one-liners, and I adopt a similar humour when I’m in meetings, by cutting into the seriousness with a playful one-liner.
Who inspires you, and why?
GA: My favourite political figure of all time is Abraham Lincoln. I have never seen anyone who was able to encounter new situations, navigate through them and make an impact, like Lincoln – even if it meant moving away from his own agenda. I am constantly challenged and impressed by Lincoln.
Everyday in my role, I get to hear about the extraordinary people in my Faculty and the incredible things they’re doing in the world. It’s like a constant parade of inspiration! I’ve met students who have started three NGOs and they’re 21 years old.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far at UBC?
GA: I am really proud of the team I’ve created. They can take on anything and they get things done quickly, like the creation of the Bachelor of International Economics and the Masters of Public Policy and Global Affairs, which they launched much quicker than people thought was possible.
Because I’m really interested in international relations, I’m also very proud of the Dual Degree program we’ve created with Sciences Po (l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris).
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
GA: One lesson I have learned is that a dean saying, “make it so” (to quote Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek), doesn’t actually make it so. It pays to be communicative, patient, supportive, and to know how to move a conversation forward.
What is your favourite song?
GA: As an ethnomusicologist, this is a very difficult question to answer! I listen to music and sounds from all over the world, and have a huge collection, much of which most people won’t have heard of. If I was focusing on recognizable songs, recently I have had an attachment to Musicology by Prince. It’s a great song with a very cool baseline that evokes funk from 1967-77.
I am also a huge fan of Talking Heads. If I had to pick a song that intrigued me, I’d probably choose Psycho Killer.
A song that my daughter and I bang our heads to, and shout out at the top of our lungs, is Green Day’s Holiday.
How do you like to recharge?
GA: I recharge with my daughter in the car going home. We sing and play games listening to the radio.
I also love to hop in my kayak. The best getaway for me is on the water. I go on kayaking trips every year and occasionally I commute to work across the Burrard Inlet in my kayak. It’s a beautiful way to start the day, with eagles, dolphins, and seals.
For you, what makes UBC different?
GA: I first came to the West Coast when I went to The University of Washington in Seattle. I found the wildness of the tall trees, the mountains, and the idea of being on the edge of the continent very inspiring. I kept hold of that idea when I came to British Columbia.
UBC is a younger institution and things are still in the process of forming. I really like the idea of being part of that process. I also love exploration and play on the West Coast. It’s a good place to be for a number of reasons… not least because of the orientation towards the Pacific and Asia, which I’ve tried to make a part of the DNA of the Faculty of Arts.
If I had to bet on which university would excel in Canada in the next 50 years, I would bet on UBC. We have the great climate, water and resources, demographics, and the geography of the Pacific Rim. It’s a great place to be - I love it.
What is the best advice you were ever given?
GA: I remember a Marge Piercy poem, in which she said: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen”. I used that early in my life to try to be a better person.
A department chair also once told me, “never tell anyone to go to hell unless you can personally take them there”, which I thought was good advice. I hope to be gentle in all of my dealings with people and show respect.
What do you value in your colleagues?
GA: Similar to what I value in leaders, I rely on my colleagues to be honest and to act with integrity. I also value energy, openness, service mentality, and a sense of humour.
Who are your favorite writers?
GA: I read daily - a mix of fiction and non-fiction. On a classical level, I go back to Miguel de Cervantes over and over again. I’m a pop culture specialist in ethnomusicology, so I can bore people by talking about the rumination of popular culture that forms the backbone of Cervantes’ book. It’s shocking to me that the person who helped invent the novel 500 years ago is still one of the most revolutionary writers. I love that.
I also love Moby Dick by Herman Melville. As for contemporary authors, I read a lot of Ann Patchett and Ian McEwan and recently David Mitchell.
What would you like to be remembered for?
GA: Above all, for being a great dad and partner.
In the job, I’d like for people to think we made this a more impactful place… with more transformational learning opportunities for students that exposed them to more powerful research (pure and applied). I’d love for the Faculty to be remembered during my time here as a place that came more alive and played more of a role in the world.
And remembered for keeping it funky!
If you could have a super power, what would it be?
GA: My 12-year-old daughter told me the perfect answer to this question...to be a shapeshifter (a person or being who has the ability to change their physical form at will). Then I could soar in the skies like a condor, explore the depths of the ocean like a dumbo squid, or be a spider on the wall, invisible to everyone. She’s a very clever girl!
What do you think the potential is for the Faculty of Arts at UBC?
GA: The Faculty is currently engaged in a project that’s considering just that. I’d like for the Faculty to be recognized for what it excels in, and to make the expertise available to students across the university. For example, we do a great job of teaching about languages and cultures. Students in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems or the Sauder School of Business will likely want to work across the world and understand cultural differences. Our Faculty should be the ‘go to’ for this expertise.
We also have an opportunity to share what we know about communication with the rest of the university, such as different writing techniques, how to analyze ideas, how to put together arguments, how to critique, and how to present and structure ideas. Every professional program that my colleagues are offering in other Faculties seem to have some need for these skills. I’d love to see us as the campus watering hole. It would be a very powerful contribution for the Faculty to make.
And the opportunity spans beyond UBC. We can be the source of the community’s life-long learning on these types of topics as well. The possibilities are endless!