Editor’s Letter: Lights, Camera, McRaven

IMG_3050The behind-the-scenes story of how UT’s chancellor became a reluctant YouTube star.

William McRaven, BJ ’79, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, was still an active-duty admiral when he took the stage at the university’s 2014 spring commencement. Dressed to the nines in his Navy whites, McRaven looked every bit the national war hero that he was: a Navy SEAL, commander of U.S. special operations, and a key player in the raids that captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq and, later, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Little did we know at the time that he had been approached by the UT System about becoming chancellor, and the remarks he had prepared were in a way an audition for the job.

I’d drawn the short straw for live-tweeting duty, and so I watched on Longhorn Network as McRaven applied lessons from his SEAL training to advise graduates how they could make good on the university’s oft-uttered vow that what starts here changes the world. Start by making your bed each morning, he said. Don’t back down, be your best in the darkest moments, and whatever you do, no matter how bad things get, don’t ever, ever ring the bell and give up.

McRaven’s speech, which he wrote himself, was so full of winning one-liners I could barely tweet fast enough. He was about halfway through when an email landed in my inbox from the university’s media-relations office with the speech transcript. A few moments later, I had published the speech in full on the Alcalde website with this proviso:

“Because we can’t improve upon perfection, and because it’s silly to try and summarize a speech that should be read in full, we present the full copy of Admiral William McRaven’s May 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Within minutes, as people from all over tweeted and shared the link, the website teetered perilously close to crashing. On Monday, we uploaded a video clip of his speech to YouTube, and it went viral. As you read this some 18 months later, the video will have been seen some 3.3 million times. Perhaps the most common comment people made after seeing the video was that the man should run for president. Needless to say, the speech had an effect on his future bosses and he was hired as chancellor just two months later.

In his first interview with us since becoming CEO of the system, McRaven confides that he had no notion that his speech was going to be one for the ages. In fact, it still surprises him to this day that it had the effect that it did. “I didn’t think there was anything all that profound in it,” he says. “I mean, you make your bed.” People still come up to him, he says, in the grocery store or in restaurants to tell him how the speech affected them.

McRaven’s unassuming celebrity is part of the reason he has been so warmly received across the state. His first legislative session was one of the best for higher education in recent memory, and while not all the credit goes to him, certainly some of it should. The one important exception, of course, is campus carry, which passed despite McRaven’s impassioned opposition.

We hired the great Dan Winters to capture McRaven’s likeness, and as the chancellor was looking over some of the shots he observed that everyone always wants to portray him as “some kind of stern badass,” when really he’s not all tough-guy. I told him I thought he was living proof that there is such a thing as an affable badass.

“Affable badass,” he said. “I like that.”

So do we, chancellor. So do we.

Photo by Tim Taliaferro.


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