The relationship between Bill McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, and the system’s Board of Regents is at a pivot point. His continued employment, as well as overarching questions of mission, priorities and budget, are up for grabs, and the board’s two-day retreat this week could reshape the trajectory of the 14-campus system and its chief executive.
With no experience as a higher education administrator or academic, McRaven was an unconventional choice when he was brought on in January 2015 to lead one of the nation’s largest university systems. What he did have, though, were leadership chops and star power unlike that of any previous chancellor.
A retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL, McRaven was the architect of the 2011 raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed. His best seller, “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … and Maybe the World,” is an expanded version of his 2014 UT-Austin commencement address, which has been viewed online more than 5 million times.
But the Board of Regents that hired him isn’t the same board to which he now reports. The nine regents who selected him were all nominated by then-Gov. Rick Perry. Six of the current regents were chosen by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“A majority of the board wants a smaller, leaner system,” said Regent R. Steven Hicks, a vice chairman of the board who was appointed by Perry and reappointed by Abbott. “Hopefully it’s something Chancellor McRaven can support. I think he’s a world-class leader, and I’m hopeful we can all come to mutual agreement on where we want the UT System to go.”
By “a smaller, leaner system,” Hicks was referring to the size of the Austin-based system administration, whose head count grew from 567 in 2012 to 923 by last September. McRaven has eliminated dozens of vacant positions and offered buyouts to numerous employees, and the head count now stands at 729.
To be sure, some of the staff increase occurred because the system shouldered some auditing, information technology and other functions previously handled by the campuses. Still, some regents wonder whether the administration has branched off into too many areas outside its core focus of supporting campuses on such matters as legal disputes, endowment oversight, legislative relations, fundraising and broad policies.
One initiative likely to be debated, and which McRaven inherited, is the Institute for Transformational Learning, a unit of the system administration that works to expand online classes, competency-based education and other innovations. The institute has received $97.8 million in funding since it was established in 2012 and was budgeted for 46 employees this year. Its executive director and chief innovation officer have recently resigned.
McRaven’s “quantum leaps,” a set of UT board-approved initiatives focusing on topics as diverse as brain health and national security, could also get a careful review by the reconstituted board. The chancellor has already scuttled the only quantum leap that drew any controversy, a campus of sorts in Houston. Eight others are still in the works.
He initially envisioned a substantial role for UT-Austin in Houston, according to well-placed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. He wound up with a somewhat vague plan for an intellectual hub playing on Houston’s strengths in medicine, energy and other fields — with details to be determined later.
The plan immediately ran into a firestorm of opposition from the University of Houston, which saw it as intellectual and territorial encroachment, and from some members of the state Legislature, who were miffed that they hadn’t been consulted beforehand. The chancellor pulled the plug on the plan in March before an advisory panel’s recommendation — to establish an institute for data science that would focus on health care, education and energy — saw the light of day. He said the system would sell off more than 300 acres in Houston it had acquired with the board’s blessing for $215 million.
McRaven declined to be interviewed for this article. He startled regents and staff members alike on June 1 when he stopped short of saying whether he wants to continue in the job after his three-year contract runs out at the end of the year. No previous UT chancellor had a contract.
“I’ve got to find out whether or not the board wants me to stay,” McRaven said. “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.”
But at the most recent regents’ meeting, on June 28, he sounded much more positive after a closed-door session in which personnel and legal matters were on the agenda, calling it “probably the best board meeting I’ve been to as your chancellor.”
Gordon Appleman, a lawyer in Fort Worth and a former chairman of the Chancellor’s Council, a donor group, said he hopes the regents keep McRaven on the job. “He brings credibility and innovative thought and courage to the job that’s absolutely needed,” he said.
As for the Houston initiative, Appleman noted that Harvard University is planning a data science center. “It’s the kind of visionary, bold thing McRaven promised when he took the job,” he said.
McRaven has acknowledged that he should have briefed lawmakers on his Houston plan before announcing it. Insiders say he also needs to improve his communication with regents, some of whom didn’t learn about the Houston initiative until a day before it was announced publicly.
There’s no doubt that with his 37-year military career, capped by a stint as commander of all U.S. special operations forces, plus his booming voice and penchant for declarative sentences, McRaven comes across as a force to be reckoned with. He likely could line up a corporate gig that would pay more than the $1.9 million he receives annually as chancellor.
Not surprisingly in light of his résumé, national and international security issues fall comfortably into his wheelhouse.
“He’s been a real help in recruiting top scholars and policymakers with expertise in this realm. UT-Austin was already pretty strong in national security policy before he became chancellor, but he has taken us to the next level and certainly raised our profile in Washington, D.C., as well,” said William Inboden, executive director of the university’s Clements Center for National Security.
Perhaps at some risk to how he is perceived in red-state Texas, McRaven hasn’t been shy about speaking out on political dust-ups. In February, he said that President Donald Trump’s description of the media as “the enemy of the American people” must be challenged and that “this sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”
He has stood up for students who were brought illegally into the country as children, for the Paris climate accord, which Trump has rejected, and for former FBI Director James Comey.
Whether the Board of Regents’ retreat, which is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at the Hotel Granduca Austin in West Lake Hills, will resolve uncertainty about McRaven’s continued employment remains to be seen. One well-placed source framed the issue this way: “The question is, can he and will he retool to respond to a new way of looking at the system and its component institutions?”
Most insiders think the answer is yes. Perhaps they’ve read the 10th and final chapter of McRaven’s book, titled “Never, Ever Quit!”