Tribute to Robert B. Harris, Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering

By Photios G. Ioannou

Robert Blynn Harris, Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering, was a faculty member in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Michigan for forty years, from 1947 to 1987. Over his long tenure, Professor Harris was a pioneer in Construction Engineering and Management research and education, and had a prominent role in the development and advancement of the field of Construction Engineering and Management at Michigan, throughout the United States, and internationally. The graduate program in Construction Engineering and Management at the University of Michigan that he helped establish in 1954 is the oldest in the world and the first to offer a separate graduate degree, the Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) in Construction Engineering and Management.

Professor Harris was born December 31, 1918, in Paul Idaho, to Riley and Addie (Scouton) Harris. He married Jean M. Petchell on December 17, 1949 in Ann Arbor, and she survives along with William (Kathy) of Grand Rapids, James (Laura) of Naperville, IL, David (Susan) of Winston Salem, NC, Peter (Jan) of Ypsilanti, Richard of California; and nine wonderful grandchildren.

He received a Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Engineering from the University of Colorado and a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering (Structures) from the California Institute of Technology. He began his teaching career at the University of Connecticut, and joined the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Michigan as an Instructor in 1947. He retired in 1987 as Professor and Associate Chair of the Civil Engineering Department. He also taught at Caltech and was a visiting Professor at the University of Utah. Upon retirement Professor Harris was appointed Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Professor Harris’ research included advanced construction scheduling techniques, time-lapse studies for construction, materials for civil engineering, and computer applications for construction engineering and management.

Professor Harris was a member of several professional and honor societies. He was a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and a member the American Concrete Institute. He was a member of and had been very active for many years in Chi Epsilon, the National Civil Engineering Honor Society, including serving as National President from 1972 to 1974.

Professor Harris was a registered Professional Engineer and served as consultant to a number of construction organizations. He had industrial experience in design and construction of engineering projects in both steel and concrete, including power plant smoke abatement models, airplane hangars, water treatment facilities, concrete dams, reservoirs, and highway bridges. On the international front, he served as an educational consultant to help establish construction programs in Honduras and India.

Professor Harris served as Editor of the ASCE Journal of Construction Engineering and Management for more than 16 years, longer than any other individual, and is widely recognized as responsible for establishing the Journal as the premier publication in construction both nationally and internationally. Upon retirement as Journal Editor, Professor Harris helped found the Construction Innovation Forum and served as Awards Manager for the NOVA Award for Innovation in the Construction Industry for many years.

His publications include several papers in construction scheduling and management. He is the author of the most widely used text in construction scheduling, Precedence and Arrow Networking Techniques for Construction, which has also been translated into Spanish.

Professor Harris received numerous local and national awards. At the local level, he received the ASCE Michigan Section Distinguished Service Award in 1963 and 1964, and the ASCE Ann Arbor Branch Civil Engineer of the Year Award in 1980. He was also a University of Michigan Chapter Honor Member of Chi Epsilon. At the national level, he received the Harold T. Larsen Award from Chi Epsilon in 1986, and the ASCE Construction Management Award in 1983. His contributions as editor of the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management were recognized by ASCE with the  Richard R. Torrens Award in 1996. ASCE honored him with its most prestigious construction research award, the Peurifoy Construction Research Award in 1991.

Professor Harris has had a profound impact on the Department of Civil Engineering, on Construction Engineering and Management, and the profession. His daily routine while an active faculty member was to serve the department until 11:00 PM every day, including weekends. Upon retirement it took several people to take up and continue his duties. He is responsible for the way the Department looks today, having designed the layout of the G.G. Brown Building. He was instrumental in hiring every faculty member in Construction Engineering and Management. As late as April 22, 2003 he met with three CEM faculty candidates and provided feedback through email. He has taught thousands of students, all of whom remember him fondly. He has inspired and influenced many generations of Construction faculty and practitioners at Michigan and throughout the world as a mentor, advisor, and dear friend. Given his long career at Michigan he was our connection with our past and our history.

Professor Harris passed away on Sunday, April 27, 2003. May his memory be eternal.