Butler named 2021 MechSE Distinguished Alumnus


Taylor Tucker

P. Barry Butler (PhD ME ’84) has been named a recipient of MechSE’s 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award. Butler has served as president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 2017, adding another meaningful achievement to a rich career in academia that has spanned more than 30 years.

“I don’t see myself ever retiring,” Butler said of his academic leadership. “Every day I come into work, I just pinch myself because I feel so good about what I’m doing.”

As president, Butler not only oversees the flagship Embry-Riddle campus in Daytona Beach, Florida, but also coordinates with leadership roles at the university system’s other campuses in Arizona and Singapore as well as manages its “global campus,” which offers online programs and localized classrooms at more than 50 worldwide locations. His presidency encompasses two primary areas of responsibility: to ensure that the university’s daily operations provide an environment for faculty and students to achieve their educational and research goals, and to act as visionary for the university’s future.

“What we try to do is anticipate areas that we think will be important down the road and build programs around them,” Butler said of continually evolving aerospace education to prepare students for the needs of the future. He cites cybersecurity, human-machine interfacing, and development of autonomous vehicles among aerospace industry sectors that are gaining ground.

“You really have to understand data,” Butler advised of preparing to enter the aerospace workforce. “It’s also important [for engineers] to not only have technical skills, but also an understanding of the business side—how you can operate a business to be profitable, for example.”

Butler’s own interest in aerospace began at a young age, fostered by his father’s career in the Air Force. After completing his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Illinois, Butler faced a choice between accepting a lucrative job offer at Pratt & Whitney or continuing to graduate school.

“I liked taking classes, I liked being around the university, and I thought, ‘Why not extend it a few more years?’” Butler recalled. “That was probably the most influential point in my life.” He completed a master’s degree in aerospace engineering before following his advisor, Professor Emeritus Herman Krier, into mechanical engineering, primarily conducting research on solid-propellant rockets.

“I always felt that getting a little more breadth to your knowledge is good,” Butler said. “By switching to mechanical, I got a chance to interact with professors that I wouldn’t have met had I stayed in aero.”

Butler then became an assistant professor at the University of Iowa and worked his way up through the ranks over the next three decades, eventually serving as executive vice president and provost. Having been a fellowship recipient while studying at Illinois, he credits the opportunity to teach his own thermodynamics class as a doctoral student with providing meaningful preparation for starting a career as a faculty member.

“I always look back on how Illinois prepared me for teaching and research,” Butler said. “It made my transition into becoming a professor fairly seamless in many ways.”

Looking back on his career, Butler likes to stress the importance of hard work and finding a role model for successfully navigating engineering education. “The people who are really good [at what they do] continually practice, day in and day out,” he said. “It really does pay off down the road.”