AUSTIN, Texas — Bill McRaven came to Texas an American military hero, charged with leading one of the country’s largest public university systems at a time it needed a steady hand.
The retired Navy Admiral and former special operations leader, who planned the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, now faces an uncertain future as chancellor of the University of Texas System. After multiple clashes with lawmakers and a new makeup of the Board of Regents he works for, McRaven’s three-year contract expires at the end of the year and it’s an open question as to whether he’ll be back.
“I want to see the direction that the board is going,” McRaven told the Texas Tribune this month.”The fact of the matter is I think there are some things we have to talk about. I’ve got to find out whether or not the board wants me to stay. If they do, that’s a decision point for me. If I’m not adding value to the University of Texas System, then maybe I’m not the right guy for the job.”
The board’s chairman, Paul Foster, recently expressed support for the chancellor, but he declined to discuss McRaven’s future with The Associated Press. The board’s reticence to publicly commit to McRaven beyond this year is an about-face from the goodwill that greeted him when he took the job in late 2014 at an annual salary of $1.9 million.
“This isn’t the time of year that the Board of Regents generally discusses personnel issues,” board spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said, noting that the board and McRaven will meet in July and that personnel discussions usually happen in August. “The board will be meeting this summer in a working retreat with Chancellor McRaven and presidents to discuss mission, budget and priorities for the UT System and the chancellor is looking forward to that discussion.”
McRaven came to Texas with an impeccable reputation for leadership that commanded immediate respect at time the board was openly clashing with state lawmakers. A University of Texas graduate and career military man, McRaven had led U.S. Special Operations Command but had no professional academic experience when he was hired to lead the system of 14 campuses, 215,000 students and 90,000 employees.
The chancellor’s duties include representing the system in legislative matters, advocating higher education causes and raising money. The job requires someone adept at navigating Texas’ brand of full-contact politics and a nimble approach through the partisan squabbles in the state Capitol.
McRaven works for the board that hired him, but those regents are political appointments made by the governor, and the Legislature controls the state budget that sends public money to its universities. The chancellors of the state’s three other major university systems all held elected office before taking their jobs.
“I joined the Navy and went away for 37 years. I didn’t know any of the players at the Capitol,” McRaven told the Houston Chronicle in April. “I’m not naive to the importance of relationships.”
McRaven wasted no time diving into politically-charged issues such as concealed handguns on campus (he was against) and keeping a state law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to pay cheaper, in-state tuition (he was in favor).
But McRaven’s troubles began when he sidestepped the governor and the Legislature to move forward with a bold plan to build a data center in Houston. To some, it seemed a natural fit for a large university system to have a presence in the nation’s fourth-largest city. But it was also seen as a territorial invasion launched without informing legislators and a threat to the University of Houston, which is striving to become a major research institution.
Tensions over the Houston move bubbled for more than a year, and lawmakers pounced during a January budget hearing when John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, told McRaven in a testy exchange, “I don’t think you give a damn what the Legislature thinks.”
McRaven bristled at the comment, but he apologized for how he handled the project and killed it a month later.
There have been other issues, too. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, sharply criticized McRaven for the university system’s expanding size and budget and its “Taj Mahal”-like new headquarters being built in downtown Austin.
“What he was selling the Legislature, a lot of people weren’t buying,” said Seliger, who called McRaven’s relationship with lawmakers “strained.”
Seliger predicted lawmakers will stay out of any decision on whether McRaven will remain beyond this year, saying it’s a matter for the regents.
“We will work with whoever the chancellor is,” Seliger said. “Chancellors don’t matter. Systems don’t matter. The institutions and the education they deliver matter.”
McRaven has had his successes, including an ambitious survey of campus sexual assault. His five-year “Quantum Leaps” agenda envisions university system being a major player in national security, brain health and student success rates.
And he still has important friends at the Capitol, including Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, who said he thinks McRaven has done an “outstanding job.”
“My personal experience has been that he is an excellent communicator with a clear vision for making the UT System even better.” Straus said. “He’s not content to be just a caretaker, and he shouldn’t be.”