At SMU, rising general’s new mission is to apply engineering to global poverty

By Chris Vaughn

 Jeffrey Talley (right)
Then-Brig. Gen. Jeff Talley, right, in Sadr City with Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the multinational force in Iraq, in 2008.
Jeff Talley had no interest in making God mad.

An Irish Catholic who had a plum teaching and research position at Notre Dame University, plus a position at a university in Dublin, Talley kept rebuffing any and all offers from a Dallas university that wanted him.

But after a phone call from Roger Staubach, an offer to help establish an institute to work on global poverty and the assurance that God loves Methodists too, Talley agreed to move to Southern Methodist University to serve as the chairman of the department of environmental and civil engineering.

"I think it’s almost a sin for me to leave Notre Dame," Talley recently joked. "I’ve got some Catholic guilt going on."

Talley, 49, an environmental engineer by training, is wanted by more than university departments.

He is on a meteoric rise as an Army Reserve officer, having demonstrated bold vision and a hard-nosed attitude in the poorest neighborhoods of Baghdad in 2008, and has moved into a major assignment over reserve training. Talley was recently promoted to major general, only six years removed from lieutenant colonel, an almost unheard-of promotion track.

"Jeff is a dynamic leader with great instincts," said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad and oversaw Talley’s unit. "He sees things a lot of other guys don’t see."

One of a kind

The dean of the Lyle School of Engineering at SMU, Geoffrey Orsak, relentlessly pursued Talley in an unorthodox manner, even bringing in Dallas’ Catholic bishop to talk to him.

It is not the norm for replacing a department head, Orsak laughingly conceded. But, he said, Talley is one of a kind — an accomplished academic teacher and researcher and a muddy-boots leader with experience in a combat zone.

With him in mind, SMU is creating an institute to focus on how engineering can mitigate the effects of poverty, help war-ravaged refugees and improve development in places as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa and poor neighborhoods in Dallas-Fort Worth. More details on the institute will be released this fall, Orsak said.

"I’ve never seen anyone with such an unusual combination of experience," Orsak said. "This is completely new terrain for engineering. We’re great at developing new cellphones and cars, but we want to have engineers thinking about the dollar-a-day people around the world. We want to rethink the role of engineering in society, and Jeff Talley is absolutely perfect to fill that role."

That idea is clearly what finally pushed Talley to accept the position.

"What SMU has done has provided a platform that is unequaled in academia," Talley said. "It is a unique platform."

Talley knows a bit about challenges.

He deployed to Iraq for the second time in February 2008 as commander of a reserve engineer brigade, attached to Hammond’s division in Baghdad and under the strategic vision of Gen. David Petraeus, one of the principal authors of the so-called surge.

Talley, responsible for countering the roadside-bomb threat, was also given the mission of coming up with a plan to influence the Iraqi people in the toughest neighborhoods and do it without pointing weapons at people.

Months before, he had studied the correlation between violence and the level of basic services available, and he believed he could improve the peace by unclogging the sewer system, picking up the garbage and staffing health clinics.

He started in Sadr City, a desperately poor section of Baghdad that was also one of the most dangerous for U.S. troops because of the Shiite-led militia.

"I wanted to target a place with an engineering blitz to improve essential services, not necessarily where they were the most needed but where the violence was the highest, and try to create an opportunity of change with the local population," Talley said. "Within two weeks we saw an improvement. We were able to turn the corner in Sadr City, and we did that by stimulating the economy through engineering."

Hammond ordered the plan put into effect in five other areas of Baghdad.

"Anyone in his right mind would shake his head and say what we wanted to do was impossible," Hammond said. "It’s impossible to think you can conduct critical, major reconstruction projects, under fire, with a young, untested Iraqi security force. But that’s the way we fought the whole thing. Jeff drove that unit to succeed, and his vision became reality."


Jeffrey Talley Position: Chairman, Southern Methodist University department of environmental and civil engineering; Bobby B. Lyle Professor of Leadership and Global Entrepreneurship

Military title: Major general, commander of the 84th Training Command, Fort Knox, Ky.

Age: 49

Education: B.S., Louisiana State University; Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon University; master’s, U.S. Army War College

Awards: The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce Award for Excellence in Teaching from Notre Dame University; Legion of Merit and three Bronze Star medals from the Army