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Remembering David Dessler

The Government Department recently learned of the death of our former colleague, David Dessler, in April 2023 in Bryan, Texas.

dessler-davidDavid was born in North Carolina in 1955 and grew up in Houston, Texas. After studying physics at Rice University, he transferred to The University of Oklahoma, where he received a BA in history and a BS in physics in 1978. He received his MA in 1980 and PhD in 1987 in international studies from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

David joined the Government Department at William & Mary as an assistant professor in 1984, and he taught for 32 years until his retirement in 2016. He offered courses in international politics, international political economy, and international conflict, but he was best known for his courses on international relations theory and historical research methods.

David was an outstanding teacher. In 1990, he was named a William & Mary Alumni Society Faculty Fellow, one of “a select group of outstanding young faculty members who reflect the best of teaching, mentoring and research at the university.” The next year David received the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, which is given each year to a young faculty member “who has demonstrated, through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.” In addition to these university honors, David also was named by the Princeton Review as one of the top 300 professors in the country.

Throughout his career, David was as equally dedicated to the governance of the College as he was to teaching. He served on many college-wide and Arts & Sciences committees, including the International Studies Committee and the Faculty Affairs Committees, and he served as the President of the Faculty Assembly in 2014-2015. He served from 2003-2005 as Associate Dean of International Studies and from 2001 to 2005 as Director of Academic Programs at the Reves Center for International Studies. 

He loved an eclectic range of music, oversized stereo speakers, the guitar, space science, his cats, having a party, or just sitting around talking and sharing jokes.

David’s influence was felt far beyond the classroom and the College; his scholarly work had a profound influence on the discipline of international relations. David’s own diverse undergraduate education shaped his academic career and led him to study and write about theories of international conflict, political economy, and philosophy of social science. He was particularly interested in the integration of reasoning drawn from the natural sciences into the social sciences and efforts to bridge the gap between the philosophy and practice of science. David’s research was at the vanguard of and heavily influenced the wave of constructivist work on international relations that rose to prominence in the 1990s and beyond.

This research was recognized and rewarded by numerous grants and fellowships. David’s work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Social Science Research Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He served as a Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, a Pew Faculty Fellow in International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a Fellow in International Institutions at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

Despite his many accomplishments in the classroom, college, and discipline, David’s greatest impact on his students and colleagues came from his strength of character. He was an extremely kind, generous, and charming person who always went out of his way to welcome new faculty members to the department and college. He loved an eclectic range of music, oversized stereo speakers, theDessler David guitar, space science, his cats, having a party, or just sitting around talking and sharing jokes. He had a clever and playful sense of humor that could be as warm as his character or as sharp-witted and brilliant as his intellect. He was loved by students and colleagues alike—more than he knew—and he will be deeply missed.

David was predeceased by his parents, Alex and Lorraine Dessler; and a sister, Valerie Greider. He is survived by a brother, Andrew Dessler; and sister, Pauline Dessler.