In 2011 William McRaven became one of the most famous figures in the country after he commanded the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. The Dallas Morning News named him its Texan of the Year, and he was the first runner-up for Time’s Person of the Year. But the training that led to that moment began when he was growing up in San Antonio in a military family and continued after he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin as a member of the Navy ROTC. Following his retirement as a four-star admiral, he returned to Austin once more in January, when he became the chancellor of the UT System, overseeing its fourteen institutions.
Brian D. Sweany: You gave a celebrated commencement address to the graduates at UT-Austin in 2014 in which you talked about your SEAL training and about your own graduation as a Longhorn nearly forty years ago. Tell me about your time as a student.
William McRaven: When I started my freshman year, I was a walk-on to the track team, I was in the ROTC program, and I had a girlfriend. It was the perfect storm in terms of things that could hurt you, so I had to learn to prioritize. I learned a lot at UT, but most of it was not out of the textbooks. Most of it was dealing with professors, dealing with roommates, dealing with girlfriends.
BDS: Life issues.
WM: Life issues. Exactly. So I’ve always thought that the real benefit of a college is the opportunity to be in a bit of a protected environment and make mistakes without them having a critical effect. I had a wonderful experience at UT-Austin. I had this group of friends in the Naval ROTC unit, and after two years in Jester, we all moved to a co-op. It was a tremendous amount of fun. As a journalism major, I really liked having the opportunity to take so many electives and learn so many things. I took philosophy. I took Sufi mysticism. I took things that I would never have taken. It was just phenomenal, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
BDS: What is the number one difference for the freshman arriving at UT-Austin today?
WM: I think there’s a lot more pressure. I was in the ROTC program and always had the expectation that I was going to join the military, but the pressure to be in the top 5 percent or top 1 percent was not always there. My parents didn’t apply a lot of pressure. They said, “Hey, go to the university. Do the best you can.” Yet I see students coming in today, and they have a lot more stressors than I ever did.
BDS: You were one of the most famous men in the military when you decided to take this job. What was the appeal?
WM: The opportunity to help change the lives of the young men and women in Texas. During my 37 years in the military, I did some exciting things—jumping out of airplanes, locking out of submarines. But what meant the most was the service to Special Operations, the service to the Navy, and the service to the nation. Normally when four-stars retire, they become a CEO or go on the speaking circuit. I realized that neither of those would be as gratifying as being back in a position where I could work in the service of a greater good.
BDS: What is your vision for the system?
WM: I will tell you the vision is still maturing. I’m used to running complex organizations, and a lot of people have asked me if the transition has been difficult. The answer is, surprisingly, no. What I learned in the military is that running a large organization is all about people. Leadership is about understanding how to motivate, how to inspire, how to manage. People always assume that when you’re dealing with soldiers, you just tell them what to do and they go do it. It doesn’t work that way. You have to inspire them, you have to lead them, you have to manage them, just like you do with folks anywhere.
Collaboration is really what has been my forte since 9/11. You have to build great teams. And frankly, that’s what I want to try to do here. How do you bring the health institutions together? How do you bring the academic institutions together? How can we have the whole be greater than the sum of its parts.
BDS: Everybody has to be paddling together, as you said in your commencement address.
WM: Exactly right. So you’ve got to be able to build those relationships, then you have to institutionalize that through a disciplined system of communications to meet weekly to discuss issues of importance. That’s what I learned in the military, and that’s what I think I’m bringing to the UT System.
BDS: You came in at a time when the Board of Regents was making headlines, often for the wrong reasons. How did you size that situation up?
WM: Let me start by saying that, frankly, I get along well with all the members of the board. I agree with the previous chairman, Gene Powell, that the board had one of the more productive two-year periods in its history. The regents set the conditions for the development and the building of the Dell Medical School, they set the conditions for the opening of UT-RGV. Part of my responsibility will be to ensure that all this continues to move forward. And just so you know, contrary to popular belief, I actually like [controversial Regent] Wallace Hall. Wallace and I get along pretty well.
BDS: I’ll bookmark that for later.
WM: Yeah, please do. When you look at the job description of the chancellor of the University of Texas System, that person is the CEO, and to my way of thinking, I had a responsibility obviously to the Board of Regents and that my day-to-day responsibility was to run the system writ large. The board will clearly have input, and they’ll have to approve certain things. But you also need to make sure that there is a division of labor between what are my responsibilities are as the CEO: to adjudicate certain investigations, to ensure that the universities are complying with rules and regulations, to hold people accountable. And, by the way, to make sure that I continue to enhance the reputation of the universities.
I welcome members of the board providing advice and counsel. I have daily interaction with members of the board in some capacity, so I have no issue at all with them being very thoughtful and very deliberative. Where I think it is important for us to have some distinction is whether they get too far down into the weeds on issues. What I’m hoping will happen is that when they have concerns, they come to me, and then it becomes my responsibility to address the concerns and to report back to them.
BDS: But as the records fight drags on, starting all the way back with the loan-forgiveness program at the law school, we’ve seen Wallace Hall sue you for access to records and the board sue the attorney general to block his ruling that confidential student information should be turned over.
WM: Well, I do I wish that Regent Hall would not have sued me, obviously. But again you have to draw a line on what I think is my responsibility, which is to protect confidential student information, and I’ll give you a scenario. The regents are political appointees. Let’s say five years from now, you have a political appointee who happens to have a political agenda, and that political agenda is going to manifest itself by finding out personal student information and then tying that student information to somebody they think deserves scrutiny. My responsibility of course is to protect that student information so that we don’t create any kind of political storm. My job is to have that kind of separation.
Regent Hall of course believes that as an individual regent, he should have access to student information. So the bottom the line is, we just, we’ve agreed to disagree. Now, what I have done of course is I have agreed to provide Regent Hall all the information he wants regarding the Kroll report [which investigated the fairness of the admissions policy for undergraduates at UT-Austin] or anything else short of student confidential information. It’s that simple. It’s the same issue with the attorney general. The AG has asked to have information provided that we think violates student confidentiality, and therefore, legally we kind of have to take these steps. But frankly none of this is personal. This is just about business, and I don’t spend two minutes a day worrying about this.
BDS: Have you sat down one-on-one with Hall to discuss his point of view?
WM: Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, he and I have agreed to disagree. He has a different view of an individual regent’s responsibility. My point has always been that if the Board of Regents were to elect a particular a regent to lead an investigation, you can provide that regent all the student information that’s necessary to carry out that inquiry. But the board has to make that decision, not an individual regent. That’s where we have the disconnect.
BDS: However, the board has passed a revised admissions policy that allows the president to override the admissions office “very rarely” in “issues of highest institutional importance.” What does that mean, exactly?
WM: The president of the university is responsible for advancing that university’s student and faculty success. That rests almost solely with the president. That’s in regents’ rules, that’s in statute. We created a blue ribbon panel to review admissions policies, and we realized that the president must have some latitude to make decisions that he feels are in the best interest of the university.
What we want to make sure is that we are maintaining transparency. What we didn’t want to say is that “rare” is point-one percent. Or that rare is fifteen students. Then a president could say, “Hey, I can let fifteen folks in.”
So the president can look at all of the applicants, and they have to have all of the qualifications necessary to succeed at a campus in the University of Texas System. This isn’t just about Austin. This is about everywhere. And if that applicant is qualified, the president can admit because the decision is in the best interests of the university.
If somebody has been a great supporter of the university, and at some point in time that person comes back and says, “I’d like to see my granddaughter admitted” and that student is qualified, then if the president thinks it’s in the best interest of the university, he can admit that qualified person.
But if somebody calls up and says, “Hey, I’ll give you twenty million dollars if you’ll let my kid in,” we can’t do that. There’s no quid pro quo. And finally, these decisions do not displace other students. The president has the latitude to increase the enrollment numbers, which operate more as a floor than a ceiling.
BDS: Did it surprise you that there was only one no vote for this revised policy, cast by Regent Hall?
WM: No, it did not.
BDS: When you became chancellor earlier this year, the Legislature was taking up several bills related to guns. You said very early on that “the presence of concealed weapons will make campus a less-safe environment.” Now that campus carry has passed, what are your thoughts?
WM: I haven’t changed my mind or my point of view on that. But here’s my responsibility now, and this gets back to my military upbringing: You have the opportunity to argue a point all the way up until the decision is made. But once that decision is made, you salute smartly and move out. That’s where we are. The governor signed the bill, and the decision has been made. Now we’re going to do everything possible to continue to make the campuses as safe as they can be, and I think we’re going to be successful in doing that. We’re not going to create a kind of barricade mentality, where everywhere you go you see signs or there are extra police officers.
BDS: What would be your number one issue related to that?
WM: I think the biggest issue will be how we lock up and secure the weapons as the students are moving into a dormitory or an area where we can’t have them. And then we have to figure out how do we protect the weapons while they’re in storage.
BDS: Another major issue on college campuses is the prevalence of sexual assaults. The UT-System just passed an unprecedented $1.7 million program to study that problem on campus. Tell me how that came about.
WM: A lot of this goes back again to my military experience, and not necessarily good military experience. When I had my three-star command, we were in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I had a large presence back in the States. And and at one point in time my command sergeant major who was my senior enlisted came up to me and said, “Hey, sir, I think we’ve got a problem with sexual assaults within the house, writ large.” And my force was between ten and twelve thousand folks. And I, to be honest with you, I was little dismissive. I mean, we were too busy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. How could we really have a problem with sexual assaults and sexual harassment? But the sergeant major, God bless him, continued to push me and said, “Sir, we really need to look at this.”
It was hard to get reliable data because the victims would often go to their chaplain or they would go to the doctor. I couldn’t get the data because the attacks weren’t being reported to a commanding officer or the military police. So we started doing extensive surveys, and we found out that the problem was a lot more serious than we had thought. It took me a long time to understand the degree of the problem.
But there was not a lot of faith in the reporting system, so we found this was the biggest issue. A lot of victims said, “If I come forward, my name will be exposed.” So we had to improve those processes as well, but the changes started with getting the data. So frankly when I got here and saw that it was a hot-button issue, I just began to ask the question.
I realize it’s a lot of money, but we have 217,000 students and 19,000 faculty. It’s a large institution, and we need to make sure we are getting out asking all the right questions, and then the data will drive what the next steps are.
BDS: Let’s talk a bit about the issues that the board has been grappling with for a while. When you consider problems like affordability, accessibility, teaching loads, and infrastructure, what keeps you up at night?
WM: I don’t lose sleep over any of those because I think the narrative is wrong in those areas. What I think is absolutely critical is when students graduate from our institution they have the technical skills and the life skills to be the very best they can be, and so it is incumbent upon our institutions to be institutions of higher education and of the highest education. And so I think we have to be careful about making education so generic, so elementary that at the end of the day somebody says, “I’ve got a degree,” and that degree is not worth the paper it’s written on. So where do you find that balance?
I would argue the affordability issue, and I will continue to argue the affordability issue. I think we here in Texas have almost the most affordable education in the country.
BDS: Even though tuition has gone up as state revenue has gone down?
WM: It remains the best value. Here’s what folks don’t understand. Let’s take the Rio Grande Valley, where we have increased the tuition. Did you know that 87 percent of the entering freshmen will pay nothing in terms of tuition and fees? Nothing. People don’t realize that. They say, “Well, you increased the tuition at UT-RGV.” And we say, “Yes, but we also increased the number of Pell Grants, and therefore the number of students going for free is higher.” Here’s something else that always amazes me. At the end of four years, the average student debt across the University of Texas System is under $21,000. That’s a small car.
So when you look at the average student, the cost of an education relative to what they will make—and pull any statistic in the U.S. government—you’re going to find an education is the best value going. Because you will make more over your lifetime. More over the next five years, ten years, and over your lifetime with a college degree. And at the cost of under $21,000 for four years, it’s the best bargain going.
So the affordability is there, and the accessibility is there. We have online programs. All of our campuses are accessible to folks. Now if all you want to do is to get accepted at the Austin campus, that’s a little bit more difficult. But we have a number of great institutions around the system. And at the end of the day, students are going to be much better off for having attended any school in Texas, not just the University of Texas System. Texas A&M and Texas State, and all the rest of them. It’s the best bargain going.
BDS: That all sounds very reasonable, so what does worry you?
WM: Yeah, I mean I do worry about the funding model frankly. It costs the university to educate somebody a lot more than the money that’s coming in from state revenues, tuition, and fees. So at the end of the day, if you’re not careful, you begin to build a financial structure that over time is unsustainable. What will happen is the quality of the education will go down because you’re looking for ways to gain revenue with maybe more online courses—not that online courses are bad—but we’ll offer more online courses because we’ll generate more revenue. At the end of the day, does that give you the same experience of being in a classroom with a quality professor? Yes, it does in some cases, and we think we’re improving that.
But the point is that, if you don’t have the financial structure correct, then I think over time we will not give you the very best in terms of the quality of the education. And that will not serve our students well.
BDS: Given your military background, how did you prepare yourself on the complexities of higher education policy?
WM: I have a magnificent staff, so when I have a tough issue, I don’t need to make that decision in isolation. I pull in the great staff, we talk about it, they give me the benefits of their experience, and then I make the decision and we go forward. The other thing that helped, frankly, was that I jumped into a legislative session. It probably would’ve taken me eighteen months to get up to speed had it not been for the session—I really had to know the stuff because I was testifying and meeting with members and editorial boards. It really was a kind of crucible for me.
BDS: Did you ever say, “I’m the guy who led the team that got bin Laden, and this is how it should be.”
WM: Nah. Nobody cares about that. It’s completely unimportant.
BDS: You mentioned as we were talking before the interview that you’d like to see the UT-A&M football rivalry renewed. Is that a possibility?
WM: I’m a big believer that we need to get back and play the game. I’m not sure everybody’s in agreement with me, but that’s a tradition worth reviving.
BDS: You can always call Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp and make that happen.
WM: [Laughs.] At some point I think the game will happen, and that will be a great thing for both Austin and College Station. There’s too much history there to let it end.