The new College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) Dean Anthony Davis spoke about his firm commitment to combating inequality and racism at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and stressed the importance of sustainability during the current climate crisis the world faces.  

Colleges across the United States have been attempting to add more diversity into their curriculums and prevent future racism within their colleges after the murder of George Floyd sparked many Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Davis talked about what COLSA specifically would do to make the majors more diverse and combat the racism at the school. He also said that among students, staff and faculty he believes “there’s a really strong collective interest in being part of positive change.”  

He said that there is a responsibility to get a handle on structural and systemic racism in academia and science. “For me also there is an importance to help people be able to come to work as their full selves and realizing the stresses that come with 2020, this abnormal year,” Davis said. He also explained that COLSA launched their first photo contest on Oct. 9 to encourage community building and positivity.  

He said, “COLSA has demonstrated a commitment to positive change around diversity, inclusivity, and equity. I firmly believe that we must continue to ‘flip’ the approach we’ve taken in the past, so anti-racist values are not a performative reaction but rather baked into the core of why we exist. We must treat each other better, we must support each other more, and we must find a way to enable those whose voices have been suppressed to be heard, loudly and clearly. COLSA has the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DivInE) committee, with whom I will work closely to craft actions needed to achieve positive change in our community. A key early step will be to build on a series of learning exchanges on race and equity that take place next week within the college.” 

Davis grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of New Brunswick and his masters and PhD at Purdue. He then traveled to Oregon State University (OSU) in 2016 to meet the then Dean of the College of Forestry Thomas Maness. Once he met him he said to himself, “I think I need to work for that guy.” So he moved there and began to work with him, but Maness became sick shortly after he started working with him so Davis took over much of his work and was eventually made the interim dean of the College of Forestry there.  

Davis spent four years at OSU, and was at the University of Idaho before that as the Tom Alberg and Judi Beck Chair in Natural Resources. There he ran a program that focused on native plant regeneration, with a lot of work in Lebanon and Jordan in the middle east and a longstanding program in Haiti, as well as Idaho.  

After Davis’ colleague suggested it would be a great fit for him, he decided to work for UNH. He realized that the position at UNH aligned perfectly with what interested him and mattered most to him so together with his family he moved across the country to N.H. 

Davis said, “We’ve really enjoyed our transition to New Hampshire. Having grown up on the East Coast, the sights, sounds, and smells remind me of my childhood. I will say that it’s been a crazy time to move and difficult to see the wildfires raging across the west from so far away.” 

“I consider the world to be at the intersection of a climate crisis and a sustainability crisis. This manifests through wildfires, through economic disparity, through food insecurity, through drought and more,” Davis said. “The people and programs at UNH, and especially within COLSA, are committed to tackling these issues and using science to empower positive change. At the core, this made the opportunity to join UNH seem like exactly the right fit at this time.” 

When Davis worked at OSU, together with his colleagues he developed a scholarship program built on a model of discounted non-resident tuition for certain degree programs that had capacity for growth. Davis said, “We first determined that even though the degree programs were currently under enrolled, there was demand for the degrees. We also looked at why students choose to attend or not attend a specific program, or even university, which yielded a mix of data that supported the idea that program-specific scholarships are a very good way to grow enrollment. While COVID has interrupted some of the continuity of data at OSU, by most recent counts the program has been successful.” 

The dean additionally helped to secure an additional $1 million to support wildfire activity in Oregon. He said that “a key role of a college dean is to advocate for needs around teaching, research, and outreach. In Oregon and across the western U.S., many needs exist in the area of wildfire science. With the interaction between past land management practices and a hotter and drier climate, as well as continued expansion of homes into forested areas, we will continue to see dangerous and costly fires burn in great quantities for years to come.” He continued on, “the new program is a first step toward engaging people across the state in activities aimed at mitigating the effects of wildfire and some of the risks associated with them.” 

Regarding the current wildfires in Oregon and the West Coast he said, “there are so many things to consider regarding the 2020 wildfire season. While steps have been taken over the past couple of years to adjust how fire funding works at the federal level, there remain tremendous gaps between the current landscape condition and a future that might result in decreased fire and smoke.” 

Davis continued, “We are absolutely not giving climate change the concern it needs. We see warning signs – such as a drought across our forests and farms, rivers and lakes – but collectively we don’t know how to react. We have ocean warming – the gulf of Maine is sadly a living laboratory, and we’ve seen the smoke from western wildfires across our skies. Not to mention that wildfires are not just things that happen in California, Oregon, Washington, or Australia, or Brazil – think about Tennessee in 2016, or look back over the past hundred years up and down the east coast and you will see so many regional “great fires.” And, having grown up in New Brunswick, as a student I learned about the Great Miramichi Fire – which burned millions of acres in the 1820s.”  

He continued, “The economic and ecological impact of failing to meaningfully address the drivers of climate change will dwarf that of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to get serious and listen to the scientists. And maybe, just maybe, we will get fortunate because the students, staff, and faculty at UNH have the intellectual horsepower and personal drive to step up in this space and be a bridge into every agency and community that is willing to come to the table and help create pathways that conserve ecosystems and sustain economies.” 

On what he is most excited about working at UNH, he said that “the commitment that students, staff, faculty, and alumni have towards human and ecosystem health and sustainability is inspiring. Working to further integrate these topics into our curriculum, research, and outreach and helping position graduates to drive positive change across livelihoods and landscapes of New Hampshire and beyond is profoundly exciting for me.” 

Davis additionally discussed some changes in his role as the dean of COLSA during the pandemic. He said, “as the dean, the pandemic has meant that I now have to balance short- and long-term impacts on student success, research, and organizational operations with an absolute commitment to the physical and mental health of our whole community, which means working even more closely with partners to identify best practices under the most challenging circumstances. This new layer of complexity is added to all the normal duties that come with leading a college.” 

He explained that understanding how important graduates, research, scholarship, and external partnerships are to the long-term health of the region means that COLSA has to identify how to keep teaching and learning and keep discovering and communicating. “As the dean, the pandemic has meant that I now have to balance short- and long-term impacts on student success, research, and organizational operations with an absolute commitment to the physical and mental health of our whole community, which means working even more closely with partners to identify best practices under the most challenging circumstances.” He explained that these new duties he has are added to all the normal duties that come with leading a college. On the topic of future plans to improve COLSA and the classes in it, he said, “I look forward to working with our department chairs, faculty, staff, and students to identify what we can do, both in person or remotely, in support of our learning outcomes.” 

Sustainability principles are already integrated into many of COLSA’s majors and minors, Davis said, “As a society, we must better understand sustainability and the life cycle of the materials we choose. We must understand the climate impacts of our decisions. We must find ways to curb our consumption of fossil fuels, protect our natural systems, and embrace practices that improve the health of our most vulnerable people first.” He also emphasized the need for more education on the current climate crisis so that people know what is happening to the world and also how many of these negative effects of climate change are hurting poorer communities the most right now.  

Davis continued, “Across COLSA, we already see so much leading activity in areas that build our understanding of climate change impacts, and thus enable us to look at mitigation strategies, while also addressing vital issues such as equitable access to food, innovative practices in human and animal health, and more.” 

Davis also spoke of his excitement about UNH’s new ranking as a “top 10 cool school in the Sierra Club” for sustainability efforts. Davis said, “I think it is great to be recognized! With this comes the responsibility to innovate and to use that ranking not just as a point of pride and recognition but as a credential to help our communities adopt more sustainable practices. We need to self-educate in the life cycle of materials and products we use every day – from food containers to cell phones to everything else, and then we need our students to be empowered to take principles of sustainability and incorporate them into their lives and jobs as they leave UNH.”  

Photo courtesy of University of New Hampshire.