Anthropology's Great Advocate to Move On

September 17, 2012

Leading figures in the American Anthropological Association agree: William E. (Bill) Davis will be hard to replace.

He is stepping down as executive director, after 16 years at the head of the association, to concentrate on writing.

Past presidents praise him as an effective advocate of anthropology, and Mr. Davis in turn thanks the group's elected officials for being "tremendously encouraging and stimulating."

"I've been very comfortable with the boards," he says, "and I guess they've been comfortable with me, because I'm still here."

He was offered the post with the world's largest anthropological association—11,000 members—in 1996, despite never having worked in anthropology. He had, instead, completed his coursework and doctoral examinations at Syracuse University in political science. When a search firm identified him as a good candidate for the anthropology job, he was executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

To put in place the association's first long-range plan, Mr. Davis had much to learn. "We were publishing 20 journals in paper and had limited circulation, primarily to academic libraries," he recalls. "Since then we've digitized 100 years of scholarship and are publishing 22 journals online, with tremendously increased access to the content around the world."

He proved skilled at working with the association's 38 autonomous constituent "sections" while containing costs, say past presidents. He also helped to ensure that the group retained control of its publications and their contents. That strategy, says Alan Goodman, president from 2005 to 2007, was intended to stem financial losses in the publishing program. "But it was really a decision about our intellectual future, too."

Mr. Davis also brought the lessons of anthropology to audiences outside of academe. "He was often a step ahead of the board—as in his vision of anthropology as a discipline that could serve the public," says Setha M. Low, who was president from 2007 to 2009. Since 2007 the association has had three traveling exhibitions about anthropological understandings of race, titled "Race: Are We So Different?"

The association dealt with some contentious episodes during Mr. Davis's tenure, including news reports that two American anthropologists had mistreated indigenous people in the Amazon, and a furor over the embedding of anthropologists with the U.S. military in the Middle East. The group's leaders generally agree that he came through those challenges well, a record that he attributes to "an almost continual discussion of what constitutes ethical conduct and behavior."

"He really nurtured the leadership but let us make our own decisions," says Mr. Goodman. "He knew as executive director that it was ultimately the members' association."

In addition to "extraordinary patience," Mr. Davis has exhibited a "really strong sense of practical politics," says Don Brenneis, who was the group's president from 2001 to 2003.

In recent years, about one-half of the discipline's Ph.D.'s have left academe for applied and practical jobs, but many of them continue to attend the association's conventions, as do an increasing number of anthropologists from other countries.

Under Mr. Davis, attendance at the meetings has swelled from 4,000 to 6,000. "That's great for the field," he says, "because it has much to offer the corporate, governmental, nonprofit, and museum worlds."

What now, for him?

"I don't plan on dying the day I retire," says Mr. Davis, 74, who will stay on the job until a replacement is found. He is writing a book about managing scholarly societies. Such groups are "a web of connective tissue" linking the varied work in their disciplines, he says, and are "very important to the whole enterprise of higher education."

He will be a hard act to follow, says Mr. Brenneis, who is a member of the search committee seeking a replacement. "One of the heartening things is that no one is expecting we'll have a Bill Davis again."