Pomona College Anthropology Professor Dru Gladney, whose research centered on the politics, peoples and cultures of the Silk Road and China’s Uyghur population, died unexpectedly March 17. He was 65.
Gladney joined Pomona’s faculty in 2006 as an anthropology professor, serving as department chair most recently until 2021. While at Pomona, Gladney also served as president of the Pacific Basin Institute, an interdisciplinary center which focuses on art, religion and politics in nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.
Gladney earned his B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from Westmont College in 1978. He later attended Fuller Theological Seminary, where he earned master’s degrees in theology and cross-cultural studies. Turning his focus to social anthropology, he earned his masters and doctoral degree at the University of Washington.
His work focused on field research in Western China, Central Asia and Turkey. As a Fulbright Scholar, Gladney was able to study the Silk Road vis-à-vis China’s relationship to Central Asia and Europe as it sought new markets and resources.
“It’s not always been a peaceful Silk Road,” Gladney said in a 2020 episode of the Pomona College Sagecast. “There’s been a lot of speed bumps along the way. But I think by and large, my view is that it’s a great metaphor for the need to communicate, to keep dialogue open, to do exchange, to learn about each other.”
At Pomona, Gladney made an impact on both students and faculty. His passion for and commitment to his work was matched by his love for sharing his interest with others.
Betsy Ding PO ’24, who was a student of Gladney’s, described him as “knowledgeable, quirky and memorable.”
Ding said that Gladney’s classes offered her a chance to tap into disciplines she previously didn’t have access to.
At the same time, “his impeccable knowledge about and conviction [about] food, specifically niche Chinese foods and different types of cuisines, was enlightening, as well as his interest in such niche topics involving industrial cuisine, restriction and religion impressed me,’’ Ding told TSL in a message.
Gladney’s Anthropology of Food course allowed students like Ding to examine the political, biological and symbolic meanings that surround food and food-related practices. Students even looked at the way food was used in a historical and social context.
“I’ve always had a niche interest in the specific intersections of food, culture and society — something I had never been able to fully explore before taking Prof. Gladney’s Anthropology of Food course,” Ding said.
“I am and will always be grateful for having the opportunity to briefly know Prof. Gladney and learn bits of his teachings.”
Associate professor and current department chair Joanne Nucho said her relationship with Gladney was filled with storytelling and friendship.
“I met Professor Gladney in 2016 when I started as a Mellon Chau Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anthropology Department at Pomona College. He grew up in Pomona and knew a lot about the area and was always happy to share stories about it,” Nucho said via email.
Gladney’s initial plans to become a social worker or Christian missionary transformed into other forms of intellectual and religious interests, which allowed him to travel across the world to Hong Kong, Istanbul, Honolulu and then back to Southern California.
In his Sagecast interview, Gladney recounted how his own spiritual journey sparked a fascination “with how religion could transform someone’s life, as it had transformed mine.”
“Professor Gladney will be remembered for how much he enjoyed bringing people together to break bread and tell stories,” Nucho said.