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Robert Bell retires after 32 successful years at UC Davis

With Robert’s retirement, the Department is losing its most long-standing faculty and a leader in the field of health communication, in the growth and development of the Communication Department at Davis, and in building a collaborative, collegial environment in which to work.


Over his prolific career, Robert’s research has contributed substantively to understanding doctor-patient communication, health information seeking, and health messaging, and led the discipline in understanding the content and effects of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. For example, over the years, his research has pervasively shown that subtle alterations of messages can substantially effect their persuasive force, and has illuminated how and why some patients seek information.


Richard Kravitz, from UC Davis Health Campus, who co-authored 44 papers with Robert over 25 years, says that "Robert is the kind of colleague everyone on my side of the causeway wishes they had: wicked smart, super-organized, intellectually humble, expert in his own discipline but open to ideas from diverse sources, and committed to producing research of practical value to doctors and patients."


Robert started his prolific publication career in 1984, with the first-author publication “Disclaiming: A test of two competing views”. Throughout his career, Robert’s work has been characterized by careful theoretical reasoning and meticulous application of empirical methods. During his career, Robert used studies employing experiments, surveys, content analyses, and standardized patient methods. During his time as active Professor, Robert published over 110 cited peer-review publications, of which 95 received at least 10 citations. His over 7,000 citations have grown by over 450 a year during recent years, showing the fruitful treasure trove of knowledge Robert’s research has created, which is currently propelling several generations of studies, year after year. Robert’s commitment to research may best be captured in his response when asked what his plans were for retirement; he answered, “I’m going to have so much more time to research and write.”


Mentoring and supporting graduate students was an important part of Robert’s last decade at UC Davis. The students he advised have gone on to appointments in the academy at both teaching and research universities, including Vienna Private University (Meng Chen, PhD UC Davis 2018), DeSales University (Katherine Grasso, PhD UC Davis 2015), and UC Davis (Jeanette Ruiz, PhD UC Davis 2015).


Robert’s tenure at Davis is inseparable from the evolution of the Department, both in terms of content and size. Hired from Northwestern University, he joined the Department in 1987, the same year it changed its name from the “Department of Rhetoric” (established 1966) to the “Department of Rhetoric and Communication;” in 1998, the name was changed to the Department of Communication. Robert has always been a vocal proponent of emphasizing quantitative social science rather than critical or qualitative approaches.  In more recent years, Robert anticipated methodological shifts in the discipline and became vocal proponent of computational approaches to the study of communication, even noting that one of his goals in retirement is to learn to Python well enough to do his own web scraping. This vision was a clear factor as Robert, during his third tenure as Chair (2015 – 2018), led the Department through an unprecedented growth phase. He oversaw the hiring of nine new faculty members, which more than doubled the size of the Department since 2014. The Department is clearly what it is today, thanks to the leadership of Robert.


Robert’s departure leaves a large hole in the Department; his leadership, support, and example will be missed. His long-term co-author Prof. Kravitz sums it up by saying: "Robert clearly loves producing new scholarship and mentoring promising young people. But he also spoke wistfully of his many outside interests and often threatened retirement.  These minor eruptions came often enough over the years that I grew complacent and started to ignore them. That proved to be a mistake.  This time he was serious!  As he sails towards new horizons, those of us here on shore will watch with a sense of gratitude and fondest wishes for fulfillment in the decades to come." 


The Department owes an immeasurable amount to Robert’s leadership and the sustained investments he made into the evolution of its character and makeup. We know that the field of Communication will not lose him any time soon, and we look forward to both having him around here at Kerr Hall, and in the scholarly community at large. All the best for a well-deserved emeritus status Robert!

Assistant Prof. Robert BellYoung Assistant Prof. Robert Bell (1989)