November 23, 2008
From Bobby Lyle's high-rise offices on Central Expressway, the 67-year-old oilman has a bird's-eye view of the new engineering quadrangle taking shape at Southern Methodist University.
It's a fitting perch for the educator-turned-rich-guy.
Dr. Lyle won't say how many millions he had to promise to get his name on SMU's engineering school, other than it is the biggest engineering gift ever committed to the university and it comes with a quid pro quo. The Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering
must meet strategic goals to earn everything he's willing to give – which well-educated estimates place at more than $20 million. He's already given more than $5 million to bring the school out of the industrial age and into the new millennium.
"This isn't about money," Dr. Lyle says with a slightly dismissive wave as we sit in the conference room of Lyco Holdings Inc. "It's about changing the whole landscape of engineering education. If SMU is going to have a school of engineering, we ought to have the very best one of its kind anywhere in the world.
"That doesn't mean that we out-Stanford Stanford or out-A&M A&M or out-Carnegie Carnegie. We need to do what SMU is uniquely suited to do: go well beyond the technical skills and move into areas that historically have not been addressed in engineering schools."
By that Dr. Lyle means annually producing about 500 technically superior undergraduate and graduate engineers with leadership qualities, a social conscience and entrepreneurial bent.
No small task.
But Dr. Lyle and Geoffrey Orsak, the school's 44-year-old dean, say SMU can pull this off given $150 million and five to seven years. Their war chest stands at $65 million (including Dr. Lyle's pledge), and they're beating the bushes daily for more.
"I think it is absolutely doable," says Dr. Lyle, who helped create the strategic plan that transformed SMU's Cox School of Business into a national contender.
SMU's engineering school is one of the oldest in the Southwest, but it's been nameless since its inception 83 years ago. Frankly, no one cared enough to be its high-dollar champion until now.
"We didn't have the resources to be great, nor did we have the inner greatness to deserve the resources," says Dr. Orsak.
Caruth Hall, which was recently razed, was named in honor of the Caruth family's long devotion to the university, not for its backing of engineering. The replacement building going up, nicknamed Caruth 2.0, reflects $12.6 million in recent Caruth Foundation gifts to do just that.
By this time next year, the engineering school will be housed in a three-building, 180,000-square-foot complex of classrooms, laboratories, offices, meeting rooms, a library, an auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater – all built in the last seven years.
This is in stark contrast to 1989, when an internal study recommended getting rid of the engineering school altogether.
That was before Dr. Lyle and Dr. Orsak went into cahoots.
Dr. Lyle, whose participation on the engineering school's executive board spans the tenures of three deans, zeroed in on a young, enthusiastic associate dean of the engineering school in 2002. Two years later, Dr. Lyle made sure the university promoted Dr. Orsak to the top spot.
Since then applications have tripled, two new buildings have been completed, high-level faculty recruited.
"Bobby provided the most important thing I needed: somebody who believed that we had a future," says Dr. Orsak. "I needed a foxhole buddy, where you dig out and do things that others won't. He's been that for me ever since I've been dean. We've taken the hill now."
Kilgore native Bobby Brown Lyle is a Millennial Mustang Man.
At just 30, he became interim dean of the SMU business school – the youngest-ever business dean of a major university. A year later, he became executive dean.
But he's not a business school product. His undergraduate and graduate degrees are in engineering, and his doctorate is in education, focusing on strategic planning and leadership in higher education.
He left academics for the oil business in 1977 and formed Lyco Energy Corp. in Dallas four years later.
He hit it big with the Bakken Dolomite Formation in Montana eight years ago. Using new technology, his company was the first to economically tap what is now considered the largest oilfield developed in the United States in more than a decade.
Dr. Lyle, who was Lyco Energy's largest individual shareholder, sold the private company for $421 million in 2005, according to public documents.
He formed his private investment firm, Lyco Holdings, and turned his attention to the Hilltop – this time focusing on engineering.
Dr. Lyle – Bobby to everyone – goes after what he wants in a quiet, determined way.
Earlier this year, SMU wanted to hire Delores Etter, assistant secretary of the Navy for development, acquisition and research, for two newly funded positions: director of the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education and the Texas Instruments distinguished chair in engineering education.
Dr. Lyle and Dr. Orsak believed that Dr. Etter, among the rare female members of the National Academy of Engineering, would bring instant national recognition to the engineering school and its push for gender equity.
But Dr. Etter had one sticking point. Selling her home in Maryland was going to be difficult, and she couldn't afford two houses. She didn't want a commuter household where her husband and two black Labradors were back East while she was in Texas.
So Dr. Lyle quietly donated his million-dollar-plus gated-community home to the university.
"He moved out, and we moved in," says Dr. Etter, who is renting the house until she can buy it once her other home is sold.
After five months on the job, Dr. Etter is thrilled with her decision.
"We face a national security crisis if we don't figure out how to get more young people involved in engineering," she says. "The whole environment here is conducive to thinking about big changes and then providing the support to implement those big changes.
"With two extremely innovative and creative people like Bobby Lyle and Geoffrey Orsak, the Lyle School is going to be doing amazing things, and I'm just so glad to be a part of it."