Retired admiral and current UT System chancellor Bill McRaven on life, leadership, and what really matters.
Shocking as it may seem, Bill McRaven isn’t one to stand on ceremony.
A former Navy SEAL who retired from a 37-year career in the military last year, he’s now the chancellor of the University of Texas System. You’ve heard of Bill McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus. His name first hit the headlines in 2011 as the commander of the mission that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. He also led Task Force 121, which caught Saddam Hussein. Last year, McRaven gave one of the all-time best commencement speeches, in which he told the new graduates, among other things, that if they wanted to change the world they should start by making their beds. The clip of McRaven’s speech has since been viewed more than 3.3 million times. The man wrote the book on U.S. special operations, and when he retired last October he carried the title of Bullfrog, the name given to the senior-most Navy SEAL.
But at this moment, as I’m checking in with security at the chancellor’s downtown office, McRaven is storming in off of Sixth Street like a man who’s afraid he’s late. He sees me and stops, looks at the guard, and says, “Ah, it’s OK, he’s with me.” The guard, who is midway through writing me out a visitor’s pass, considers me, considers McRaven, perceives no threat, and sends me through. In the elevator I ask McRaven where he was. Lunch, he says. What did he have? A salad. What he really wanted, he admits, was Maudie’s. Spoken like a man who’s been gone from Austin for four decades.
In his office, McRaven pulls up a chair directly next to mine, turns it to face me, leans back, and without any prolegomena signals that he’s ready to talk.
TIM TALIAFERRO: You started as chancellor on Jan. 5. How’s it going?
BILL MCRAVEN: You tell me. [Laughs] The great thing about coming in at the start of a legislative session was that it really did advance my understanding of the issues much more quickly. When things would come up on formula funding or tuition revenue bonds or the governor’s research initiative, I had to dig into these issues. Over the summer we’ve been building out our strategic plan, and we will roll that out at the November board meeting.
There wasn’t anything in the speech that I thought was all that profound. These are the sorts of things we learn in the military. I mean, you make your bed.
How similar is serving as a university system chancellor to serving as a military leader?
When I was in the military, I had 12 subordinate commanders that were three-stars and two-stars, and just like presidents of campuses they had a certain amount of autonomy. But, at the same time, we had to all move in the same strategic direction. I spent the last 14 years working with Capitol Hill. Working with the Legislature here was very similar except, frankly, they are just better workers here. They have a limited amount of time, and they come in as citizen legislators. They do what’s right by the folks in their district. I found the legislative session very inspiring and uplifting.
How did you come to this job?
In April 2014 I was approached by an envoy from the system about the possibility of taking the chancellor job. It was not on my radar scope at all. When we first talked, I had a lot of things going on. I said ‘Look, I need to think about this. I need to make sure it’s a good fit for me.’ So after April I had the opportunity to come out here and do the commencement speech, and that was just fun. It was fun being around the faculty, it was fun being around the students. You really did get a sense of what life around the university could be.
Then the regents came to visit me in June, and they talked about their aspirations for the system. They were focusing a lot on the Rio Grande Valley. I’m a San Antonio boy, and I have great respect for the folks in the Valley. They talked about the two medical schools that they were building, the potential to take us to the next level. Not just rankings, but a sense of how great Texas can be. All of that was part of the discussion we had and that really helped cement my decision to come to the chancellor job, and I haven’t regretted it for a minute.
Your commencement speech has been seen more than 3 million times. What was your reaction to becoming a YouTube star?
I was pleased it got the kind of attention that it got, but I was absolutely surprised by it. There wasn’t anything in the speech that I thought was all that profound. These are the sorts of things we learn in the military. I mean, you make your bed. It is about doing a task, paying attention to details, respecting everyone. The military is a meritocracy; it isn’t about your color or your gender or your orientation. You do your job.
Has anything changed about your day-to-day after that speech?
I get people talking to me all the time about the effect and impact the speech has had on them. I’ve literally had thousands of people stop me in airports or restaurants or sporting venues. It makes me feel pretty good that it resonated the way that it did.
The relationship between academia and the military has not always been great. Were you conscious of that when you took this job?
I was conscious of the fact that there was a perception about military officers. And it’s just that: It’s a perception, not necessarily a reality. When I got here people thought: Well, we’re going to start marching and ringing bells when I cross the quarter deck and there’s going to be more discipline. My very first letter to the system focused on the faculty and the students. It was so everyone could understand who I am. I am very supportive of academic freedom. It is the cornerstone of every academic institution. The ability to question conventional wisdom, to challenge authority, to ask the hard questions, to be innovative.
You mentioned the legislative session. Was it successful?
Absolutely. I would give it probably a B+ or an A-. Now, could we have gotten a little more of what we wanted? Maybe. Not all but most of the chancellors agreed on campus carry. That was one area where we had one outlier but not too bad. I was not supportive of the campus-carry law, but it’s the law now. The one thing I’ve learned in the military is you argue your point until the decision is made, and once the decision is made you salute smartly and you move out.
Let me ask you about the UT System. Why is there a system? Why aren’t there just 14 campuses?
You have to find out where there are opportunities to scale to your strengths and to reduce your vulnerabilities by the nature of your size and diversity. You can’t do that if everybody is independent going off on their own. But you don’t want some giant homogenous corporate entity. This is about recognizing and respecting the independence of the institutions and the strengths of the institutions, while at the same time pulling them together for greater strategic good. And this is what I think only the system can do. We need to understand what our core capabilities are here at the system and make sure we don’t get too far afield of those.
So it’s partly supportive and partly directive?
Absolutely. It’s directive from a strategic standpoint and from an oversight standpoint. I have an obligation, the system has an obligation, to the board of regents and to the people of Texas to make sure that we’re providing the appropriate oversight to regents rules and to higher education.
We’ve got a legal battle going on between a regent and you, as CEO of the system. For people who maybe don’t know much about this, what is it all about?
It’s just a part of doing business. I actually happen to get along very well with Wallace Hall. I think he’s been a good regent. He is clearly passionate about his issues. The issue right now is really just a difference in opinion on whether or not a regent should have access to confidential student material. My position is that an individual regent should not have copies of confidential student material, and his is that they should. And that’s it. It’s just a difference of opinion.
There’s no animosity?
Does it get a little tense sometimes? Yeah, sometimes it does. But I have respect for Wallace Hall and for all the regents.
When he talks about this, he says he’s fulfilling his fiduciary duty. Do you just disagree on exactly what that looks like?
I absolutely believe that any regent ought to have an opportunity to ask the hard questions. The dilemma we’ve run into here is that no one has been able to explain to me why an individual regent needs to know the names of students in order to satisfy their educational interests. We can provide any regent the data he or she needs to make an educated decision without exposing students’ names or their relationships to other students, their parents, and all these sorts of things.
I haven’t seen any of these names. I have no real need to know. Now, do I understand the nature of various problems without knowing the students’ names? Of course I do. What we don’t want to do is put a student in a very awkward position where now their names are exposed for what could be motives other than educational interests. Again, not attributing that to Regent Hall at all. I’m just saying that when you look at how the board of regents is formed, they are political appointees. I am not. The board of regents provides the institutional guidance. My job as the CEO is to run the institutions and to make sure the integrity of the institution is upheld. And that is the appropriate check and balance.
Do you have any notion of how and when this gets resolved?
I don’t. I’ll let the lawyers work it out and when it gets resolved, it gets resolved.
And you’ll salute smartly and move out?
Of course. That’s the point. If the decision is to allow an individual regent to have access, that’s the decision. We’ll press on. But right now I think I’m following the federal law that says we’re not going to divulge personal student material.
Let me ask you about sexual assault, because this appears to have been something that quickly became one of your top priorities. Why is that, and what are you hoping this system-wide study you have commissioned leads to?
Soon after I took over the job as chancellor, you saw a number of high-profile cases around the nation. Some of them were inaccurately reported, but it didn’t make a difference. I reverted back to my experience when I was a three-star in command of a joint unit. My senior enlisted sergeant major came to me and said, “Hey, sir, I think we have a problem with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the command.” I had about 10,000 folks that worked for me. And, frankly, I was a little dismissive at first. I said, “We’re in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, these troops are carefully selected and highly trained. How is that possible?” When we did a survey, it was eye-opening for us. A lot of it had to do with the concern from the victims, who were 99 percent female, that they could not report an incident without having their names exposed. Or if they reported an incident and their names were exposed, that there would be retribution. So we had to immediately get on those two issues. We put a lot of effort into this in the three years I was at this command. And I’d like to think by the time I left we had made a significant change in the culture: different training, making sure the process of reporting was clear, and taking good care of the victims without unduly punishing the assaulter until we had all the facts and could do an investigation.
Are you expecting to find anything specific with this survey?
I think that the institutions are, in general, doing a pretty good job. But I don’t have all the facts. And I won’t get all the facts from the survey, but I will definitely get a better appreciation for the concerns that are out there. We’re going to figure out how we can better educate the students and the faculty. How do we ensure we have the right reporting processes in place? All those sorts of things are important for proper handling of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct.
What are the most common things you get asked by students?
Many students want to know: How did you get to where you are? What did you learn in 37 years in the military? For me, the military wasn’t about how to shoot an assault weapon or how to handle a handgun or how to jump out of an airplane. From the time I was a midshipman at UT, I was learning leadership. After 37 years, that is my skillset. I think they see that’s a tremendous advantage in today’s environment regardless of whether you’re an anthropologist, a physicist, a businessman, or an engineer.
What about questions from faculty?
They’re really interested in how we continue to maintain the academic freedom that is so important to them. How can they be better professors? We had the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards recently, where we bring in outstanding faculty from around the system and we recognize them. What was stunning to me, coming from a culture that recognizes merit pretty frequently, is that some of these faculty members had been teaching for 20-30 years and this was their first opportunity to be recognized. I want to find other opportunities to do that, because the faculty are working incredibly hard every day. And they are passionate about their students. I want to change this belief that the faculty members are not putting in the time and effort to take care of their students. What I have seen as I have traveled around is the faculty are incredibly engaged with their students, whether it be in the research arena, whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s coaches in athletics, they are very, very involved with our students.
They are not dodgers and coasters.
They are not dodgers and coasters. There’s always a small portion in any organization. But the vast, vast majority are magnificent people doing what they know is right by the students in their institutions.
What about alumni? What do they ask you about?
Sports [Laughs]. Alumni really want to get involved. It’s not just about their money; it’s about their dreams and their passions. And their understanding in an institution like UTRGV or El Paso or San Antonio not only changes an individual, it can change a whole town, a whole state, a whole nation. They know that because somewhere along the line, these alumni were changed by one of our institutions. So they see the opportunity in the young men and women who are coming into school, or the nontraditional students, and they kind of project themselves back and say, “That was me 40 years ago and I became a successful lawyer or businessman or doctor, teacher or whatever, and I know what that institution can do.”
So when you’re not being the chancellor, what do you like to do?
I play basketball. I don’t do yoga. I’ll get out on Sunday at Gregory Gym and shoot hoops. I haven’t had a chance to get there in about a month or so. But over the holidays I was there quite a bit. When I’m not actually playing, I’m watching sports.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading a book on chaos theory right now.
I love physics. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to understand the complex formulas. But I love the layman’s version. The book I’m reading is called Deep Simplicity.
Does it have applications for your current job?
I’ve always wondered why things happen the way they happen. What are the relationships? You know, it’s the classic butterfly effect. How did I get to be the chancellor of the University of Texas? Nothing in my early life, nothing would have told you that I would be a four-star admiral and a chancellor.
This book up here [points to bookshelf], Swerve, is a good book. It’s a story of an old Greek manuscript of Western philosophy. But I can’t remember the year, I’d like to say the 1600s, after the Pope is deposed, the guy who was the Pope’s scribe decides he’s going to go out and find this manuscript. He spends the next couple of decades looking for it. He goes to all the monasteries, because that’s where all the books were kept. And of course all books were hand-written. He finds this book and begins to copy it. Eventually the Gutenberg press comes out and, before long, the book changes all Western thinking about the philosophy. The point is, it’s much like chaos theory. Some things just don’t seem like they should line up, and yet they do. Why does that happen?
Any favorite restaurants in town?
I do spend a lot of time at Maudie’s.
What’s your prediction on the football season this year?
Ah, we’re going to be fine. Sometimes you need a wakeup call, like we had at Notre Dame. Coach Strong is fabulous. I’m a huge fan. I know he’s got a great coaching staff and we’re going to be just fine.
You’ve had a series of pretty sweet titles: admiral, commander, chancellor, bullfrog [the senior Navy SEAL]. Is there one you’re working toward?
You know, when I graduated from ROTC here, I thought I’d be lucky to be a lieutenant in the Navy. And as time went on I was able to ride the bow wave of the change in how the military looked at special operations. I think if you’re out there looking for a title, that’s probably the worst thing you can do. Just do the job the best you can where you’re at. And things happen for you.
Does that fit with chaos theory?
Chaos in this sense is really not about how everything is chaotic, but actually about how things are well-defined—you just can’t see them until you get down to a really small level. And then you realize, really small changes create huge events.
You’ve come back to this idea several times: Just do your job. How do you think people should evaluate the job you do?
What I hope people will evaluate me on is my leadership. Have I tackled the tough jobs? Have we done so in kind of a dignified fashion? In a decisive fashion. And provided the kind of transparency and clarity that I think the public and the students, faculty, and clinicians need?
As I begin to lay down specific initiatives, they’ll have something very concrete to measure me on. How well did he do on bringing this initiative to fruition and this initiative and this initiative? In a year, if I haven’t made much progress on that, folks have every right to criticize my leadership. But if I have made progress, then they’ll have a benchmark from which to judge me.
If you weren’t a chancellor and you could just go out and do anything right now, what do you think you’d do?
I’d be a coach.
What would you coach?
Any team sport. I love spending time around young folks who want to be a team. They don’t have to win everything, because I’m not a believer in winning is everything. I am really a believer in—this might sound a little Pollyannaish—but you do the best you can do. There is tremendous value in giving all your effort and doing the best you can do.
Top photo by Dan Winters.
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