Civil engineering department head offers variety of specialties

Robert Stokes, department head and professor of civil engineering, specializes in transportation planning and research. He has been with K-State since 1991. (Hallie Lucas | The Collegian)

Robert Stokes, department head and professor of civil engineering, has been a member of the Kansas State community for the past 25 years, and has held a multitude of jobs along the way.

Aside from his current role as the department head and professor, Stokes also teaches highway safety training courses for county highway personnel and is the director of the annual Transportation Engineering Conference held at K-State.

“Many people, both leaders and faculty, have come and gone but Dr. Stokes is still here at K-State as a valuable asset and a resource,” Sunanda Dissanayake, civil engineering professor, said.

Before coming to K-State in 1991, Stokes worked at the Texas Transportation Institute, a research organization at Texas A&M.

“We were raising three young daughters and decided Houston, the big city, wasn’t where we wanted to raise our children,” Stokes said. “So I started looking around for a small-town university, applied a few places, got an offer here and have been here ever since.”

Since his move to Manhattan, Stokes has spent numerous years teaching students about transportation and highway engineering.

“Prior to assuming the department head position I was just a ‘POP,’ plain old professor,” Stokes said.

Three years ago, Stokes became the interim head of the civil engineering department following the death of previous department head, Alok Bhandari.

“We had just hired a new, energetic department head, and he contracted some rare cancer and declined very quickly and died within a year and a half of coming here,” Stokes said. “They asked me if I wanted to step up and become interim head, and I had the faculty support to do that so I took over with the intent of doing it for a year or so.”

Then during the department’s search for a full-time head, Stokes applied for the position primarily because of the ideas circulating throughout the university at the time between former President Schultz’s 2025 vision and Darren Dawson, the new dean of the College of Engineering, who Stokes said had great ideas and plans to advance the college.

“In the years I’ve been here, it was one of the more exciting times for the university in terms of somebody wanting to really elevate the university to another level in regards to its reputation and coming out with innovative programs and inspiring faculty to go on to bigger and better things,” Stokes said.

Stokes was drawn in by the challenge of being able to be a part of that change and redefining direction.

“Professor Stokes is a very dedicated engineer,” David Steward, civil engineering professor, said. “He is somebody who has a great awareness for the field and where the field is going.”

Despite his advancement within the civil engineering department, Stokes said that he’s not the typical academician in terms of disposition, education and background since his whole life has not been centered around academia.

“I didn’t go right from high school to college and into academia,” Stokes said. “I’ve been out in the world a bit.”

After receiving his doctorate in urban and regional planning, Stokes worked as a city traffic engineer, a city planner in Columbus, Ohio, and a full-time research planner and engineer during his time at Texas A&M.

Dissanayake said that his total of 40 years of experience in civil and transportation engineering has become a valuable asset in serving all his constituents.

During his time pre-academia, Stokes also served as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

“Anyone who’s been through things like that, it gives you a very different perspective in terms of what’s important,” Stokes said. “I think that may lend somewhat to my laid-back personality when it comes to dealing with matters in academia.”

His faculty members also notice this calm way about him.

“He is overseeing all activities in the civil engineering department all while keeping that cool and collected demeanor,” Dissanayake said.

Stokes said he cares very much for the faculty and people he works with and for. One of his favorite parts about working for K-State is the people he encounters, he said.

“I’m really impressed with the quality and disposition of our students,” Stokes said. “They’re heartland America, they have a great work ethic, they’re honest and hardworking.”

While he thoroughly enjoys his position at the university, outside of work, Stokes said he has a hobby of his own. As a child of the ’60s, he played in a garage band, and he even still spends part of his time collecting and restoring old guitars.

“I don’t play very well, but the engineer in me wants me to take them apart, put them back together, buy, sell and trade them,” Stokes said. “That’s kind of my therapy.”

While many academicians center their life around the academic world, Stokes said that his mixed background as well as the supportive community at K-State has aided him in what he does today.