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Generosity enables hiring of renowned pavement, materials engineer

Bill Buttlar holds a fracture test sample while standing between two students in fluorescent runway gear.

Bill Buttlar (center) holds a fracture test specimen from a American Society for Testing and Materials standard runway design test at O’Hare International Airport that his team developed. Photo courtesy of Bill Buttlar.

Civil engineering Professor Bill Buttlar has made improving the quality of materials used to pave roadways his career focus, and thanks to a generous gift from an alumnus and the Missouri Asphalt Pavement Association, he’ll now be working toward that goal at University of Missouri College of Engineering.

The Civil and Environmental Engineering Department recently selected Buttlar for the newly endowed position of Barton Chair in Flexible Pavement Technology, named for 1961 civil engineering alumnus Glen Barton, who helped fund the position.

Buttlar officially will join the faculty in May. He previously served as a professor and associate dean for graduate, professional and online programs at the University of Illinois College of Engineering, where he’d worked since earning his doctorate in pavements and materials from Penn State University in 1996.

Headshot of Bill Buttlar.

The Civil and Environmental Engineering Department recently selected Buttlar for the newly endowed position of Barton Chair in Flexible Pavement Technology, named for 1961 civil engineering alumnus Glen Barton, who helped fund the position along with the Missouri Asphalt Pavement Association. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois.

The addition of Buttlar is one of several strategic hires College of Engineering Dean Elizabeth Loboa said the College intends to make to capitalize on its strengths. She thanked Barton and MAPA for their generosity and specified just how important endowed chair and professor positions can be to an institution such as MU.

“These positions allow us to recruit the brightest and most sought-after faculty in their discipline,” Loboa said. “With these, we can coalesce areas of strategic investment and research that really capitalize on the strengths of the faculty we have in the College.”

The combination of financial support for the position and the ability to fill a key, unprecedented role in a solid civil engineering department proved too good for Buttlar to pass up. His hire gives MU Engineering a respected asphalt and pavement researcher and instructor to pair with top-of-the-line research and instruction in other areas of transportation, including bridges, transportation safety, smart infrastructure and more.

“To me, he’s a world-class teacher, scholar and researcher,” said Erik Loehr, interim chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at MU. “He does a really good job of combining the science of pushing the profession and the discipline with also doing things that can impact society in the short term. It’s not always easy to find with something as applied as pavement.”

Buttlar has more than 200 publications and has given more than 50 invited lectures dealing with his work in sustainable and smart infrastructure, and he’s served as director of the Transportation and Highway Engineering Conference since 2001. His goal is to continue finding innovative ways to develop economical, durable and sustainable asphalt materials, and smarter infrastructure, which will be beneficial to all in an era of tight budgets and limited infrastructure spending.

“The only way we can gain momentum on aging infrastructure and shrinking budgets is with major innovations and breakthroughs in developing smart, sustainable and resilient transportation systems and infrastructure,” Buttlar said.

“The support from MAPA and Mr. Barton is a signal to everyone that the state of Missouri is serious about the science behind roads, and that the industry wants to build quality roads and really understand how these complex materials and systems work for the public good,” he added. “They want to understand how to make pavement more sustainable, and they’re not afraid to invest in innovative research and demonstration projects.”

MU’s newest engineering hire has created a buzz within the Missouri Department of Transportation. Having an expert in asphalt materials at the state’s largest university stands to benefit MoDOT by potentially providing insight into how to lower the cost of road construction and repair.

“MoDOT is always looking for new ways to stretch our limited transportation funds,” said MoDOT Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger. “We have been on the leading edge of recycled asphalt pavement, and we look forward to working with Bill to take asphalt to the next level of performance and affordability for our customers. Having someone of Bill’s caliber at Mizzou is a real benefit to MoDOT and our industry.”

Pictured is a model of the reflective crack simulation using a 3D fracture approach that Buttlar and his team ran on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pictured is a model of the reflective crack simulation using a 3D fracture approach that Buttlar and his team ran on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration. Photo courtesy of Bill Buttlar.

Barton retired as chief executive officer of Caterpillar, Inc. in 2004, and since then, he’s wanted to find a way to help move asphalt technology along, noting that with petroleum becoming scarcer, new materials will be needed in the future to pave our roads. So he began working with his alma mater to support an eventual hire that could help answer future pavement materials questions.

“The idea of us having a program underway that might look at some creative alternatives out there through flexible surfaces was highly interesting to me,” Barton said.

The Missouri Asphalt Pavement Association could not agree more. The organization represents several of the state’s major pavement contractors in order to promote the industry to the general public and to state and local government. They jumped at the chance to help fund the position and donate necessary laboratory equipment because of the potential benefits to the industry through the education of future industry members.

“One thing we recognized is we need to have that available to college students,” MAPA Director Dale Williams said.

Loehr echoed Williams’ sentiment. Having Buttlar on board will both help the department in terms of innovative, hands-on research and in new course offerings for current and potential students.

“This will make a pavement course permanent, as well as adding elective classes our students can take at the undergraduate level and develop an educational program at the graduate level, too,” Loehr said. “And they’ll be working with a world-class guy.”

Buttlar said he’s excited to get back to the kind of university that reminds him of his days as a graduate student at Penn State. Only this time, he’ll be the one educating the next generation of asphalt and pavement experts.

“I enjoy medium-size classes and close mentoring relationships with students,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to a program of moderate size. It’s the best of both worlds — big enough to do world class research and intimate enough to interact with students on an individual basis.”