Bill McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, is planning to step down at the end of the academic year in May because of health issues he has been facing, he told the UT System Board of Regents on Friday afternoon.
McRaven’s decision was not completely unexpected, given that he was briefly hospitalized in November for what he described at the time as “a perfect storm of bad health” that included severe anemia, likely a result of a chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a type of cancer he was diagnosed with in 2010 while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
His hiring three years ago by the regents was considered an unconventional choice. McRaven had no experience as a higher education administrator, but he brought undeniable star power to the 14-campus operation as the retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL who had directed the mission that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden.
McRaven, 62, said that serving as chancellor has been “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” but his health issues caused him to rethink his future.
“This decision to transition to private life was one of the hardest I have ever made, but recent health concerns prompted (his wife) Georgeann and me to reflect on the years ahead and think seriously about things we still want to do as a family,” McRaven said in a statement. “While I’m on the road to recovery and am grateful to my UT physicians and the good wishes and prayers of our many friends and colleagues, I believe it is time to segue to several other passions in my life that I’d like to experience, and much of that will also involve teaching and writing.”
In recent months, McRaven had been noncommittal about remaining on the job as he battled health problems stemming from his leukemia. McRaven told the American-Statesman on Friday that he received an infusion of iron for severe anemia in November at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He has since received four treatments of a drug called Rituxan, which is commonly administered to patients with his form of leukemia, at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
These recent treatments could put him in remission for a long time, McRaven said.
“The health scare I had was just that. It did scare me,” he said Friday. “It made me rethink my future. This is not a serious health problem, but it is also not trivial.”
McRaven, who holds a tenured professorship at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said he plans to teach there after he steps down from the chancellorship.
The board hired McRaven in 2014 for the prestigious post of running one of the nation’s largest university systems. He started the job, which pays $1.9 million a year, in January 2015.
McRaven, who graduated from UT with a journalism degree before joining the U.S. military, led the hiring of six new presidents at UT System institutions, worked to close the gender gap in compensation and raised the system’s profile in such fields as neurosciences and national security — including its bid, filed Monday, to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory, heart of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. He had missteps as well, notably the acquisition of 300 acres for more than $200 million to establish a campus of sorts in Houston, a city where the system already has two health units. He canceled the plan in March in the face of intense opposition, including from state lawmakers and even some of the regents.
But he and the regents emerged from a two-day retreat in July with warmer relations, and by all accounts he could have stayed on as chancellor.
Sara Martinez Tucker, chairwoman of the regents, said McRaven offered to help with the Los Alamos initiative in any way he could after he steps down. That could possibly involve a consultative role or a seat on the board that oversees the team, assuming the UT System and its partners win the contract, she said.
Tucker said that McRaven agreed to stay on in part to help his successor get up to speed before the next legislative session, which begins in January 2019. Although McRaven returned to work after his hospitalization “with a bounce in his step,” Tucker said she knows the chancellorship “is a 24-7 job.”
UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves thanked McRaven in a statement Friday for the work that he has done.
“Chancellor McRaven has been a great leader over the last three years, and I have been honored to work together with him,” Fenves said. “From the day he became chancellor, Bill McRaven has been focused on the impact of the University of Texas System in the state and beyond. We owe him our deepest thanks for his service and dedication, especially to the flagship campus of the University of Texas System.”