Content warning: This story contains mentions of suicide and death.
When William "Bill" Knight first met Adriene Kelly, he knew that he was going to marry her one day, but she didn’t know that.
Adriene was working in a frozen yogurt shop when she first met Bill. Bill was a customer, and he spilled yogurt all over the floor. Adriene was upset at the mess and yelled at him, but she made sure to set aside his favorite flavor of yogurt so there was some left, even though he had spilled it.
Bill would later tell Adriene that he was impressed by her kindness and smile.
Throughout their 28 years of marriage, Bill and Adriene enjoyed traveling together, going out to breakfast on the weekends and trying new foods and restaurants.
“When Bill was traveling, he was in his element,” Adriene wrote in an email to The Miami Student. “Some of my favorite memories with Bill are special memories from our travels.”
They were each other’s biggest supporters. Bill worked in academia at various Midwest institutions, and Adriene followed him wherever he went.
“We were partners, and I supported him in his career, wherever that led us,” Adriene wrote.
‘[He was] always willing to find time for students’: Knight at BGSU
In 1996, Bill was hired at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) as the director of Institutional Research (IR). Before Bill came to BGSU, there was no IR office, and he spent 15 years developing the program from nothing while serving on several dissertation and thesis committees.
Denise Davidson, now a professor at the Bloomsburg University campus of the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania, had the opportunity to learn under Bill while she was a doctoral student at BGSU.
“He always had a sunny disposition and wanted to be helpful and useful, and the classroom environment sort of reflected that,” Davidson said. “I never dreaded going to class.”
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When Davidson began to work on her dissertation about for-profit colleges and universities, she asked Bill to serve on her committee.
“He was a brilliant person in terms of knowledge and how to apply information and how to find the best approaches to gathering data and then making sense of it,” Davidson said. “He also was one of the kindest, nicest people I’ve ever known, always willing to find time for students.”
‘He was always about fixing things’: Knight at Ball State
In 1994, Bill met Victor Borden at a conference for the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“At the time, I remember running into him while we were walking to the conference and just struck up a conversation,” Borden, now a professor of higher education at Indiana University, said. “[I remember] how open and friendly he was at the time, and he continued that way forever.”
Borden and Bill were members of AIR and remained in communication, running into each other at various conferences. Bill applied for Borden’s job at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) – and even though he did not get the job, he landed at Ball State University (BSU).
At BSU, Bill also taught graduate-level classes in educational research and started a certificate program for institutional research without much support from his colleagues. The program was so successful that it continued to thrive after he left.
“I’m sure it’s not the same without him because he really was about educating the next generation,” Borden said. “He paid it forward, paid it backward, paid it in all directions.”
‘He had a lot of grace’: Knight at Miami
Bill came to Miami University in March 2019. He spent his lunch hours discovering new parts of the university, noting things he had never seen before.
This is how Bill spent most of his time: researching the things he did not know.
“What was fun for me was to see those things through his eyes, as somebody who was just learning about the campus,” Jeffrey Wanko, a professor of mathematics education at Miami, said. “It reminded me that sometimes I take things for granted, like how beautiful the campus is and what a unique place we have.”
In 2019, Wanko was working as an associate provost in the Provost’s Office at Miami when he first met Bill. Bill was being interviewed for assistant provost for Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Miami, and after interviewing several candidates, the search committee chose Bill for the job.
A year later, he would help navigate faculty and staff during the unprecedented times brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of Bill’s many responsibilities at the university was the Student Learning Assessment Reports, which detail how students are assessed during programs and provide data on how well students are understanding the material.
Sheri Leafgren was the program coordinator for pre-K through fifth-grade teacher education at Miami before retiring in 2022. She taught at Miami for 14 years, and although she never met Bill in person, she found their administrator-faculty interactions refreshing.
“He had a lot of grace with giving people more time to get those reports done, and you know what happens when you work with administration, it feels like it’s automatic, it’s a machine … but he was just so gracious,” Leafgren said.
When she learned the story of Gabriel Taye, an 8-year-old boy who died of suicide as a result of bullying at a school in Cincinnati, she knew she had to include his story in the program’s curriculum. Leafgren included the story of Taye in her assessment for Bill, although she didn’t expect him to read it.
But Bill replied to her email and wrote, “Thank you for reminding me of the human face of the work we do, which too often gets overshadowed in administrative work. I am heartbroken to hear about Gabriel.”
Leafgren was surprised to see that Bill not only took the time to read through her report but also read the story of Gabriel Taye.
“When you send that to somebody in an administrative building, who’s in charge of all the records people turn in for every program, and for him to read it with some kind of view other than a checklist, it was just really meaningful,” Leafgren said.
‘It was well-deserved’: Bill’s final award
Bill died by suicide on April 7, 2021. He was 55 years old.
Bill is survived by wife Adriene; his mother-in-law Ruth Williams; father-in-law Eugene (Sue) Kelly; sister in law Robin (Doug) Schlaegel; nieces and nephews; great-nieces and nephews; friends Greg and Donna Rogers; and his beloved pets Clyde, Sullivan, Sebastian, Sophie and Cordelia.
In 2022, AIR awarded Bill the John Stecklein Distinguished Member Award, which “recognizes a member whose professional career has significantly advanced the field of institutional research through extraordinary scholarship, leadership, and service.”
At the conference, Bill was honored at the closing brunch, and Adriene spoke about Bill’s dedication to education and research.
“It was well-deserved,” Adriene wrote. “I wish he could have been with us to receive the award, so he could understand the impact he had on people and the magnitude of people that he had touched.”
‘I learned …’: The legacy Knight left behind
Leafgren never got to meet Bill in person before he died.
Although Leafgren and Bill tried to meet for coffee a few times, the pandemic and scheduling of the semester kept delaying their plans.
“I just kept sort of putting it off, thinking, ‘I’ll just do it later,’ and that’s what always happens,” Leafgren said. “You think you have all the time in the world for things that are meaningful to you.”
The colleagues who did meet Bill said his dedication to education expanded beyond the walls of administration buildings. Although he was passionate about research and learning new things, the individuals he crossed paths with actually learned from him.
“The most important thing that I learned from Bill is to have a good work-life balance,” Wanko said.
Wanko said Bill would print pictures of his model train sets and hang them on his door in Roudebush Hall.
“I learned patience and grace,” Borden said. “I don’t think I quite had that kind of calm patience that he had.”
Borden said he only saw Bill get mad once or twice in the 30 years they knew each other, and Bill was always the last one to get upset.
Despite Bill’s dedication to academia, his work in education and research won’t be what he was known for. His genuine and caring personality will live past Bill’s death through those who were fortunate enough to know him.
“He will always be remembered for his well-known work in IR,” Adriene wrote. “But he will be better remembered for his quiet and thoughtful presence, his dignity, and his care and support for those around him.”