Debbie Dunkle: The Loss of a Mentor and Friend

Amid the remembrances of 9/11 in the US and the death of Elizabeth II in the UK, I’ve received news about the death of a wonderful friend and colleague, Debbie Dunkle. At seventy-seven years of age, Debbie had a wonderful life in Southern California and a fantastic career, but I was no less deeply saddened by her passing.

We were graduate students in political science at SUNY-Buffalo in the early nineteen seventies. She was a year or two my senior and became one of the only graduate students who became a mentor to me, particularly in research methods. I often recall our regular morning coffee with fellow graduate students in the (temporary) Ridge Lee campus cafeteria and the great social support these meetings provided to me and our colleagues. Debbie anchored the group. We all coalesced around her to discuss developments in the department and the field. I vividly recall one of our routines in which one of our unlucky student colleagues brings a recent rejection letter to the table and reads it to the group. We would categorise the rejections, such as the frequent ‘velvet-glove’, and move on with our days.

Debbie Dunkle

I left Buffalo for my first teaching job in Florida, and soon after that to a research professor position at UC Irvine, where I was focused on supporting the methodological aspects of an NSF-funded study of urban information systems in the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO). At the end of our project, Debbie encouraged me to move back to a teaching position at San Diego State University, and I encouraged Debbie to come to Irvine. She did and Debbie made a tremendous success of her career move.

As you will see from the following tribute to Debbie from two of her long-term colleagues at UC Irvine, including Professor Kenneth Kraemer, the director of the PPRO, Debbie had a great career at Irvine, even after her retirement in 2012. Dr Debbie Dunkle was a great help to me and all her colleagues, but also a wonderful friend, whom I will personally and professionally miss.

I was heartened by this tribute from Vijay and Ken, as it illustrates a life of a researcher and teacher that was greatly appreciated. So I share it here with the permission of the authors.

A Tribute to Debbie from Vijay Gurbaxani and Kenneth Kraemer*

Dear Colleagues:  

We are writing to share the sad news that Debbie Dunkle, Director of Research at the Center for Digital Transformation, passed away yesterday after a brief illness. She was 77.   

Debbie had a long and illustrious career at UC Irvine.  After completing her Ph.D. in Political Science, she joined UCI in the late 1970s to work at Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO), an Organized Research Unit on campus, bringing together faculty from the business school, information and computer science, social sciences, and social ecology, directed by ‘Merage’ faculty member, Ken Kraemer. Her skill in survey design, data management, and data analysis attracted faculty and funding to the Center and advanced many faculty careers. Debbie also oversaw PPRO’s IBM mainframe and survey research operation in the 1980s onwards giving UCI faculty an edge in conducting their research when computing and survey resources were rare. Always housed in open-office environments, her door was literally always open, and into the night, to faculty, students and staff who sought her personal wisdom and humor as well as technical expertise. The faculty and students* she assisted over her 40+ year career are too numerous to mention. 

Later, PPRO was renamed as the Center for Research on IT and Organizations (CRITO), which then evolved into the Center for Digital Transformation. Through this evolution, Debbie was an anchor, helping new young faculty, bringing enormous institutional memory, allowing new Ph.D. students to join research projects seamlessly and facilitating the different phases of multi-year research projects, including the first study of the use of technologies in city governments, the first nationwide study of computing in the home, the impact of information technology on productivity, and the globalization of information technology production and use. She also coordinated the Orange County Business Survey for the business school for many years, measuring the sentiment of executives in the region.

Over her career, she supported the data management, data analysis, and survey design requirements of hundreds of projects. She authored and co-authored numerous books and academic publications. Many of us at Irvine (and universities across the globe), both faculty and doctoral students, owe her a debt of gratitude for her role in our career success.   

In 2012, Debbie retired from full-time work. She was recalled as a part-time research specialist at the Center for Digital Transformation and has played a key role ever since in making the Center what it is today. Among many other initiatives, Debbie designed and executed its annual survey of digital transformation and authored numerous academic publications and technical reports.   

The CDT family, Leslie Fell, Maureen Vasquez, and Vijay, like Ken and colleagues earlier, looked up to her for her fortitude, her amazing sense of calm amidst crisis, and her wisdom. She always steered us in the right direction. And we loved her wry sense of humor.

Perhaps her greatest joy at work was mentoring undergraduate students, most recently our interns Priyanka Pabari, Kristen DeVore, and Cheyenne Chavez. When we heard loud laughter and excited conversation in her office, we knew she was interacting with students. Her wisdom, humor, and unwavering encouragement made a big impact on the lives of each student she worked with. 

Debbie was passionate about genealogy, classical music, and cats. Combining her passions, she named her 3 adorable cats after composers – Hildegard (11), and Bartok and Mahler (5-year-old brothers). 

Sadly, these cats are now in need of new homes. If you are open to adopting these wonderful cats or are familiar with resources that can help place them, please let me know.  

She is survived by her two brothers, their spouses and children.  

Rest in Peace, Debbie. We will miss you.  

 Vijay Gurbaxani and Ken Kraemer

September 11, 2022

Debbie’s Cats

*This tribute was circulated on 11 September 2022 by Kenneth Kraemer and Vijay Gurbaxani. I am sharing it with the permission of the authors.

Comments are most welcome