Associate Dean Remembered for Personal and Professional Impact at MSU and Beyond  

The College of Arts & Letters is mourning the loss of Bill Hart-Davidson, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies and Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Cultures (WRAC). Hart-Davidson, who was beloved both personally and professionally across the College and Michigan State University, passed away suddenly on April 23, 2024. He was 53 years old.  

A renowned scholar, teacher, and administrator, Hart-Davidson has been described as visionary, generous, brilliant, innovative, empathetic, selfless, and a collaborative leader whose reach was expansive. This year was his 20th year with the College of Arts & Letters and Michigan State University.

Headshot of a man with short hear and glasses.
Dr. Bill Hart-Davidson

“Bill was a brilliant scholar, an imaginative administrator, and a beloved friend, father, and partner. To lose him at the height of his creativity and influence is devastating,” said Christopher P. Long, Dean of the College of Arts & Letters and the Honors College. “His generous spirit and the wisdom of his work will endure in the lives of all of us who had the privilege to know him.”  

Since 2017, Hart-Davidson had served as Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies where he oversaw all activities associated with research and graduate education in the College of Arts & Letters. In this role, he developed a strategy and support network for faculty that increased grant-funded research proposals and awards in the College.  

“When I first met Bill, he exuberantly told me that the Associate Dean job was what he had always wanted as he could share his vast strategic research and grant knowledge with students and colleagues to help them flourish,” said Sonja Fritzsche, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Administration and Professor of German Studies. “In the gift of the seven years that we worked together in the College, he touched thousands of lives here at MSU and across the country through his many 1-1 meetings, guest lectures, and instructional videos. It is now only in his profound absence that this enduring influence is truly felt. That he is missed does not begin to describe this loss.”  

Man standing at a podium with a microphone in his hand pointing at a screen with a series of numbers, all zeros and ones.
Dr. Bill Hart-Davidson talks about artificial intelligence and writing in September 2023 at Bowling Green State University where he had earned his M.A. in Writing and Rhetoric and B.S. in Education. The talk was part of a series BGSU was doing on generative AI, teaching, and learning this past year. (Photo by BGSU photographer Michael Nemeth)

Together with Dean Long and Associate Dean Fritzsche, Hart-Davidson helped develop and lead the Charting Pathways of Intellectual Leadership initiative in the College of Arts & Letters, an initiative that was first created to address the disconnect felt by faculty who found the traditional categories of research, teaching, and service pulled them away from a more holistic and meaningful approach to their work. The framework shifts the lens to the more inclusive categories of sharing knowledge, expanding opportunities, mentorship and stewardship designed to expand our understanding of what is valuable university work and empower staff and faculty to put their values into intentional practice.  

Hart-Davidson was an ongoing champion for graduate students, supporting their scholarship and research. Prior to his role as Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, he served as Associate Dean for Graduate Education for the College for three and a half years and was the Associate Chair and Director of Graduate Studies for WRAC and helped build the WRAC graduate program, which he led for years.  
“Bill was an amazing, incredible person,” said Dànielle DeVoss, Chairperson of WRAC. “He worked tirelessly and usually behind the scenes to build community, to ensure resources were available to grad students, to champion people as whole people, to recognize all staff and faculty in their roles in supporting student success, to shine the spotlight on faculty research and creative activities, and so much more.”  

Man wearing a black graduation cap and gown taking a selfie photo of himself with Linton Hall in the background.
Dr. Bill Hart-Davidson prior to the Spring 2016 advanced degree candidate commencement ceremony.

Hart-Davidson was a co-founder and Senior Researcher in the Writing, Information, and Digital Experience (WIDE) Research Center connected with WRAC and Digital Humanities at MSU. Some of his teaching and research areas included writing and technology, human-computer interactions, and user experience design. He also helped launch the Experience Architecture major in 2015, which is shared between the Department of Art, Art History, and Design and WRAC.  

More recently, Hart-Davidson’s research explored the challenges and opportunities with generative artificial intelligence models and the impact on language and writing. He shared this work in a 2023 Ask the Expert article and video and in many presentations at MSU and other universities nationwide. Just last month, he delivered the in-person keynote address at the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at MSU in which he discussed generative AI and the near future of writing technologies.   

Hart-Davidson was a co-investigator on a $3.75 million National Institutes of Health grant studying ways to help decrease cardiovascular disease risk for minority and low-income populations with diabetes by improving patient interaction and communication. He also was a co-investigator on a $48,000 Council of Graduate Schools and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Award in 2021 to pilot a program customizing learning experiences and career pathways for doctoral students in the humanities.  

Four people (three men and one woman) who are all wearing glasses and lanyards around their necks, standing in front of a sign that shows the logo for Eli Review.
Eli Review co-founders (from left to right) Mike McLeod, Jeff Grabill, and Bill Hart-Davidson with Eli Review Director of Professional Development Melisa Graham Meeks (far right)

Hart-Davidson co-founded Eli Review in 2007 with colleagues Jeff Grabill and Mike McLeod when they were faculty members in the then Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures. This online peer review platform is dedicated to helping writers in any discipline become better writers through a write, review, and revise process. Initially used at MSU, Eli Review’s three founders worked with Spartan Innovations, the MSU Research Foundation’s venture creation entity, to set up Eli’s parent company Drawbridge in 2012 to make the software commercially available and to expand its learning and research tools. Eli Review is now used worldwide by tens of thousands of students and teachers every day to promote critical thinking and better writing.   
Hart-Davidson also was part of the research team that developed the Faciloscope app, which provides rapid, real-time analysis of online conversations as they develop, giving moderators the tools they need to keep conversations moving along in a productive way or the insight to know when a conversation is not worth continuing.    

Hart-Davidson co-edited two books, Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare (2023) and Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities (2015), with co-editor Jim Ridolfo. He also published over 100 articles and books chapters that have been cited over 1,700 times.    

Four people standing together in a row (three men and one woman). The woman and the man in the center are holding a plaque that is for the William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.
Bill Hart-Davidson (second from left) receives MSU’s William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award in May 2023 from Interim President Teresa Woodruff. Also pictured are Norman Beauchamp (far left), Executive Vice President for Health Sciences, and Thomas Jeitschko (far right), Interim Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

In recognition of his comprehensive and sustained record of scholarly excellence in research, instruction, and outreach, Hart-Davidson was awarded in 2023 the William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award, one of MSU’s highest honors. He also was named a Fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing in 2016 for his career contributions and leadership in technical communication.    

“A transformative leader in the field of Rhetoric and Writing, a gifted researcher, an inventor and innovator, Bill saw potential in each person,” said Mary Beth Heeder, Sr. Consultant and Project Manager and Co-Coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Health and Wellbeing Minor that’s currently in development. “He saw possibility and made Michigan State University and our world a better place.”  

Hart-Davidson’s influence can be seen in the many students and colleagues he mentored who share stories of his kindness, support, and encouragement.  

“What Bill taught me was the ways your relationships and networks with people and institutions can really make a difference in the day-to-day lives of people,” said Kristin Arola, Associate Professor in WRAC, Gillmor Endowed Professor in Professional and Public Writing, and Director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program. “He was a mentor to so many people because he just was so present and open and excited for whatever you were into. And his answer was never ‘no’ to anything, it was ‘let’s talk about how we could do that,’ which I think was a beautiful thing about him.”    

Man standing outside playing a bass instrument.
Bill Hart-Davidson at his home in April 2024 with the 1946 bass he had just purchased.

Hart-Davidson earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University. He also received an M.A. in Writing and Rhetoric and a B.S. in Education, both from Bowling Green State University. In addition to his academic accolades, he was an avid runner, cyclist, and musician who played bass in the local Blue Jazz Working Group band.  

The College of Arts & Letters wishes to express its heartfelt condolences to Hart-Davidson’s wife, Leslie, and daughter, Lilian. Hart-Davidson’s obituary can be viewed on the Watkins Brothers Funeral Homes website.  

Memorial Tributes

In honor of Hart-Davidson, an “Ohio Buckeye” tree will be planted at the MSU Sacred Space, west of Linton Hall. Hart-Davidson cherished his Ohio family roots. This living memorial will stand as a lasting homage to his legacy and his profound love for Michigan State University. A tree planting and dedication ceremony is scheduled for Friday, May 3, from 10:30 to 11 a.m.

A Celebration of Life also is planned for Friday, May 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Broad Art Museum. The service will be officiated by Professor Kirk Domer and there will be time for guests to share their memories of Hart-Davidson. Following the Celebration of Life Service, a reception, with food and refreshments, is planned for 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Horticultural Gardens of MSU (1066 Bogue Street, East Lansing).    

Also, in honor of Hart-Davidson, the William Hart-Davidson Endowed Scholarship has been established, which will further cement his enduring impact on the academic community. Contributions to this scholarship can be made by visiting the Online Giving page for the William Hart-Davidson Endowed Scholarship.