Ag engineering professor Robert Butler retires
February 26, 2009
Robert Butler, a professor of agricultural engineering at UW-River Falls, retired in December, ending his 25-year career teaching at the University.
“It was just a matter of time,” Butler said. “Age was catching up to me.”
Butler’s class load will be juggled between several different adjunct professors, Dean Olson, the chair of the agricultural engineering department, explained.
“Dr. Butler expressed an interest in retiring a couple years ago, but continued to work an additional year due to the death of Kamal Adam in our department,” Olson said. “Dr. Butler will be greatly missed in the department, but we completely understand his desire to spend time with family and pursue other interests. We have extended a standing invitation to attend department meetings and to stay in touch with the program.”
Butler graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1967. The following year, from the University of Nebraska, Butler received his master’s in the same field. Butler finished his formal education at Pennsylvania State University, receiving his doctorate in 1972. Both the master’s and doctorate carry an emphasis in soil and water engineering.
“The degree is relatively the same thing as majoring in civil engineering, but it focuses a lot more on agricultural issues such as pollution, manure usage and tillage,” Butler said.
During his time working towards his doctorate at Penn State, Butler was employed as a full-time assistant professor there.
“Penn was a fantastic environment,” Butler said. “But I strongly feel that in order to teach, you must have real world experience.”
In 1974, Butler left Penn State, and academia altogether, to join his brothers in assuming control of their father’s confinement hog farm. Besides raising swine in environmentally controlled buildings, Butler worked on designing equipment for use in those spaces, manufacturing new systems that could provide direct control over each stage of development for the pigs.
“At one time we were the largest confinement hog operation in all of Minnesota,” Butler said. “It is a really large job, trying to get so many pigs through such a large system like that, but my designs helped us do it better than the other farms around at the time.”
In 1983, after nearly a decade running the family business, Butler took a chance in responding to an opening at UWRF in the ag engineering department.
“I called the department chair in early August of ‘83,” Butler said. “I decided that I wanted to try for, at least a year or two, the academic side as opposed to the business side.”
Butler began teaching that fall, bringing with him more of an emphasis on engineering. Up until then, the ag engineering curriculum at UWRF was focused on more mechanical aspects.
Butler said he takes great pride in knowing he helped lead UWRF towards new and exciting agricultural technologies.
Butler said he felt comfortable almost immediately teaching ag technology, something he referred to as a mix between mechanics and engineering, bringing together more practical and applied theories than comparable majors in design engineering. His overall focus in the program, according to Butler, was to teach students the same theories as traditional engineering, but to supplement that with the ability to troubleshoot existing products, provide customer support and knowledge on how to sell new, more innovative ideas.
Butler’s time at UWRF was spent almost exclusively in the classroom.
“I was involved in my early years in the typical faculty committees,” Butler said. “But I never had an interest in faculty governance. I just wanted to teach.”
Butler did, however, serve as the department chair for agricultural engineering for nearly a decade, from 1993-2002. During that time, the department went through a process of self-justification against UW-Platteville and UW-Madison. All three schools had ag engineering programs, but the UW System wanted to eliminate two of them. Butler submitted his analysis of the UWRF program and presented it to the UW Board of Regents, successfully convincing them to choose his program as the only agricultural technology program to remain in tact in the state.
“In terms of majors, our program is fairly large,” Butler said. “But for some reason we were viewed as relatively small. We actually had to self-justify several times while I was chair, each time convincing the Board we were a strong and valid program.”
Butler believes that his former program is in a very strong position going into the future.
“Ag engineering is at the center of so many hot-button issues today,” Butler said. “We work in renewable fuel sources and alternative energies, and we make sure that our grads enter the work force ready to implement real-world skill-sets and theories.”
Butler said he prided himself on bringing out the best in every student.
Olson agreed, saying that Butler was a rigorous yet fair teacher.
“Dr. Butler challenges students in the classroom to ensure they understand the material,” Olson said. “Frequently I hear students say they are studying for ‘a Bob test.’ Several alumni have commented on how well Dr. Butler prepared them for engineering careers.”
One of Butler’s major achievements came when he developed a senior level capstone course called experiential learning. Butler got a grant for the class in 2002, and he spent three years piloting the course, working out the kinks.
“The course is an opportunity for students to get some real world experience,” Butler said.
In the class, students from across disciplines are bunched into small groups of roughly four to five, and the teams recruit projects from local businesses. The projects are not fictional, and they represent real business goals of the client. After acquiring a project, the students must work together to brainstorm ways to market the product/service or develop a new product altogether. Butler said the class is designed to handle a wide variety of project opportunities.
After brainstorming, the students write a formal proposal for the client. Once it is approved, the team then follows through on their proposal, working to finish to finish the goals outlined. The class concludes with the team giving a report on whether the goals were met or not.
“If the program is successful,” Butler said, “then we’ve helped students in three areas: teamwork, written and verbal communication and the ability to solve open-ended problems.”
Butler said the class is also a great tool in assessing how the department is doing in teaching the skill-sets. Ideally, any four random students could be picked for a project. If the team cannot complete any area of the course, then that is a good indication that the area in question is not being properly addressed in the curriculum.
Although Butler said he loved the classroom, there were other things he wanted to dedicate his time to, such as sending time at his cabin in Ladysmith, Wis., on the Flambeau River. There, Butler enjoys relaxing with his wife, hiking and boating. Butler also said he looks forward to spending more time with his 11 grandchildren, three of whom live in China, giving him a great opportunity to travel abroad.
Butler is currently working in his wife’s certified public accountant firm, Butler CPA’s, in North Hudson. There, Butler helps mostly in the background, but does get the opportunity to work with budding entrepreneurs on developing business plans and organizing investor portfolios.
“My job is to lay out the info in ways that bankers and investors can easily understand,” Butler said. “There are a lot of parallels to working at UWRF, in sitting down and talking with an eager mind, drawing out of them exactly what they know and need to know.”
Butler said he will miss most the camaraderie with his fellow faculty at UWRF, as well as the personal interaction with students.
“I was really good at playfully teasing students,” Butler said. “I will really miss that, and I will miss seeing them grow into successful individuals.”