Jeffrey W. Talley is an Irish Catholic engineering professor who thought he would never leave the University of Notre Dame. He loved the institution so much that after he arrived in 2001, he built a home right on the campus for his wife and four children.
So when a recruiting firm approached him last winter about becoming chairman of Southern Methodist University's department of environmental and civil engineering, Mr. Talley brushed it off.
Besides, he was not exactly available. He was halfway around the world, dodging militia fire in Iraq as part of his second job, as the U.S. Army's chief engineer in charge of rebuilding Baghdad. Mr. Talley, who earned his undergraduate degree on an ROTC scholarship, is a two-star general in the U.S. Army Reserves. He received the second star in June for his work restoring roads, water, housing, and even soccer fields around Sadr City.
Like any good academic, Mr. Talley had studied the problems in Iraq before he left in February 2008 and found that in areas where there was rebuilding, violence seemed to ebb. So once he got to Baghdad, he placed the engineering focus "not where it was needed the most, but where the militia was thought to be embedded in the community," he says. "You're using engineering as a tool."
That idea caught Southern Methodist's attention. The university also wanted someone to spearhead a new institute that would use engineering technology to help alleviate poverty, in the United States and around the world. From the start, Mr. Talley, who is 50, was the university's top choice. "I've never seen anyone like him," says Geoffrey C. Orsak, dean of engineering at Southern Methodist. "He's not your absent-minded-professor type that you see out of central casting. He has a clear objective for what he wants to do."
For the search, Mr. Orsak hired a firm, R. William Funk and Associates, that typically focuses on recruiting university presidents and provosts. Mr. Talley visited the campus in Dallas in February 2009, but he told his interviewers he wasn't interested. So the university just turned up the heat. It invited Mr. Talley back to have dinner at the Dallas Petroleum Club. At the table were some of the people who had pledged a $5-million endowment for the new Institute for Engineering and Humanity, including Bobby B. Lyle, the energy titan and namesake of Southern Methodist's engineering school. After dinner, Mr. Talley got phone calls from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican, and Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboy, and the university even arranged for Mr. Talley to talk with Bishop Kevin Farrell of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
What ultimately won Mr. Talley over, though, was the institute and its mission. "The institute is giving me a platform to take what I tried to do in Sadr City and Iraq in a different direction—to link academia and engage scholarship on the ground and make a difference in the world," he says.
Mr. Talley will eventually hire eight professors at the institute, which will offer master's and doctoral degrees. Students must complete a project or design a product to help a disadvantaged community, in areas like low-cost housing, clean water, sanitation, roads, and energy.
"Students will have to work with people in a community to ensure their products are used," says Mr. Talley, something he acknowledges does not come naturally to engineers. Another attraction of the job, Mr. Talley says, was that everyone at Southern Methodist seemed "ridiculously patriotic." At Notre Dame, he says, none of his colleagues seemed to understand his military work, and they viewed it primarily as a diversion from what he could accomplish as a professor.
Peter Kilpatrick, dean of engineering at Notre Dame, acknowledges that the university didn't have a way to reward Mr. Talley for his military accomplishments and couldn't counter Southern Methodist's offer with a promotion. "I think we are more conservative in the metrics we apply to someone's impact in the world than we ought to be," says Mr. Kilpatrick.
Mr. Talley is now busier than ever, not just at Southern Methodist but at Fort Knox, where he commands a division that readies all Army Reserve units for deployment. "I literally have two separate lives," says Mr. Talley. "Luckily, SMU is willing to share me."