William McRaven

William H. McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the secret military raid that killed Osama bin Laden, retired as a four-star admiral and became chancellor of the University of Texas System, was in El Paso last week.

It was McRaven’s first public visit to the University of Texas at El Paso since he was named chancellor less than six months ago. 

He met with UTEP officials, community leaders and public officials. He toured the campus, attended a Chihuahuas baseball game and visited the former Asarco property, which the UT System wants to purchase.

Between meetings on Friday, McRaven sat down for an exclusive interview with El Paso Inc. When he walked in, he introduced himself simply as Bill McRaven.

McRaven, 59, graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977. Later, he earned a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California.

He became a Navy SEAL and rose to head the entire Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, where he was responsible for 67,000 special operations personnel from all four military services.

McRaven, who is often called “the terrorist hunter,” oversaw the team that hunted down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and he had a hand in drafting President George W. Bush’s strategy for combating terrorism as a staff member with the National Security Council.

He wrote the book on special operations, literally. Called “Spec Ops,” it continues to be one of the most widely read books on special operations in the military. McRaven does have some experience in academia and helped establish a curriculum at the Navy’s postgraduate school in California.

But he is probably best known for plotting and executing the raid on the compound in Pakistan that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Many also know McRaven for the 20-minute address he gave at UT-Austin’s graduation ceremonies a year ago. It went viral on YouTube and has nearly 3.2 million hits so far.

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed,” he said in his speech.

After 37 years of active duty, McRaven retired from the Navy last year to become chancellor of the 15-campus University of Texas System, the state’s largest, officially taking the reins from former chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in January. 

McRaven became chancellor at a turbulent time for the UT System, one marked by political rifts, witch hunts and an admissions policy scandal. Perhaps regents thought it was time to bring in a Navy SEAL.

McRaven and his wife, Georgeann, have three children. They live in Bauer House, the gracious Austin home provided for chancellors of the UT System.

McRaven makes $1.2 million a year as chancellor. His salary comes with the potential for bonuses, making him of the nation’s most highly paid higher education administrators, according to the Texas Tribune.

Talking fast and powered by a Dr. Pepper, McRaven packed a lot into the 20-minute interview that focused on El Paso and UTEP. 

He talked about the importance of UTEP to the UT System, its bid for tier-one status, Paul Foster’s leadership style and the proposed purchase of the old Asarco property.

Q: What is your first impression of UTEP?

Frankly, I’m just stunned by the beauty of the campus; you can’t help but notice that when you drive on. 

I spent a lot of the time yesterday talking to (UTEP president) Dr. Diana Natalicio and her team. You realize what UTEP has done for the community, what they have done for the state of Texas, in terms of their support of the Hispanic population in particular. 

The trend lines are all moving in the right direction in terms of student engagement, student success, the number of doctoral degrees awarded and number of diplomas that are issued. It is very, very impressive.

Q: How important is UTEP to the UT System?

It is as important as every other campus we have in the UT System. One of the things I try to convey to the university presidents when we travel around is that their importance to the system has nothing to do with their proximity to Austin. 

There is always this belief that it is kind of all about Austin or it’s all about M.D. Anderson or it’s all about Southwestern – it isn’t. It is all about what the institutions do in the geographic area where they live. 

So when you look at a UTEP, or a UT-Permian Basin, or a Tyler, or a UT-Rio Grande Valley, the influence and impact they have on the community is fabulous. I’m more focused on what does UTEP do for this region, and from that standpoint, it is incredibly vital to the UT System.

Q: How so?

It really is one of the top Hispanic universities in the nation. If you go back 20 years and you look at the population, it was predominantly Anglo. Now what you see is, because of the outreach to the K-12 schools and the community colleges, they have encouraged the Hispanic population to buy into the UTEP concept.

That’s good for everybody. That’s good for El Paso, good for the state of Texas, good for the nation and certainly it is good for the individual lives of the students who are coming through the school.

Q: How well have you gotten to know El Paso businessman Paul Foster? As chair of the UT System Board of Regents, he is one of UTEP’s key connections to Austin.

I’ve gotten to know him very well over the past five and a half months, and he has been a fabulous chairman. He’s got a great leadership style.

Q: What is his leadership style?

He’s very calm. In the middle of a lot of the controversy – the drama that sometimes occurs whenever you have a large organization you are running – he is a steady hand. 

He has given me a lot of latitude to do my job, and yet at the same time he’s been very supportive on all of the tough issues out there. I think he recognizes that my role is really as CEO. 

I have to have a relationship with the chairman and the Board of Regents that is understood and is well defined. Paul Foster certainly understands that. 

Q: UTEP’s efforts to reach tier-one status and become a national research institution is a big deal here. How do you think UTEP is doing in that regard?

They are certainly moving toward tier-one status. And, really, it is the classic case that it is the journey, not necessarily the goal line, that matters. 

If you are driving to tier one, everything about the university gets better. So you understand you have to pull in more research money. You understand you have to drive up your population base, because generally you’ve got to hit about 30,000 students to be tier one and you’re at about 23,000. But you are driving that way.

You have to make sure the student to faculty ratio is right. All of these sorts of things are what make for a better institution, and that’s why you draw the line in the sand and say, “Hey, we want to be tier one.”

Q: Is UTEP an underdog?

Is it an underdog? No. I don’t think it is an underdog at all. It is a university that understands where it wants to go and that it has some things it needs to do to get there.

Q: Dr. Natalicio has put the research expenditures needed to be tier one at $100 million. The state defines it differently, putting the mark higher. What do you say?

I’m not sure that $100 million in research alone will qualify you as a tier-one university. But like I said, I’m not sure that is necessarily as relevant as driving toward the other aspects of being a tier-one university. 

You clearly have to have a financial threshold, which Dr. Natalicio has laid out, but there are other aspects that make for a great university – many of which are already in place here. When you go from one doctoral program just 20 years ago to 20, with plans for another one or two, that’s impressive.

I’ve had a chance to spend most of today and a lot of yesterday going around the campus, looking at the laboratories, 3D printing facilities and sim labs. I mean, it is a phenomenal university, and the folks here in El Paso ought to be extremely proud of their university.

Q: Some UTEP officials have mentioned a three- to five-year timeline to achieve $100 million in research expenditures. Is that realistic?

I wouldn’t put a timeline on it. I’m not sure if the time is as important as driving towards the objective.

Q: Is the Legislature providing enough support and funding to propel the state’s emerging research universities to the ranks of major national research institutions?

There is never enough money from the state to be able to do that. There has got to be a partnership between the state and the UT System, the universities and the great philanthropists out there. 

The governor, as you know, established the Governor’s University Research Initiative. That’s about $40 million, and that’s his attempt to recruit Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy to Texas and that’s good. This is important for all of our universities, because if you get great faculty, it is going to attract great students and everybody’s boat rises with the incoming tide.

Q: Yet some don’t think the legislature has provided enough support.

The presidents are always going to say it is not enough. If I were a president, I would never tell people it is sufficient, because you always want to continue to get better. And that is going to require more money.

Q: UT System regents are considering purchasing the entire 450-acre former Asarco property, which borders UTEP. Is that a good idea?

It is an idea we need to continue to explore. On the surface of it, it looks like a great idea. But we’ve got to let the deliberations go on between UTEP and the system and the bankruptcy trustee to make sure we get to the right point where it is good for everybody. 

It would be good for the city of El Paso, because we will be good stewards of the land. There will always be the compliance aspect of this that is going to require us to be good stewards. But on the surface, it would appear to be a good direction to head.

Q: Have you had an opportunity to tour the site?

Yes. I went out and looked at it this morning. It is a beautiful site and has a lot of potential. 

Q: Potential at least.

In terms of how you could use the land, we have a lot of options out there.

Q: How concerned are you about the pollution left behind by the smelter?

It appears from what I was briefed on today that the cleanup is going as planned. Some of the land is only going to be available for commercial use because of the cleanup requirements and some of it will be available for residential use. But, again, all of that is subject to further discussions.

Q: Do you have a sense of the timeline – when there might be action one way or another?

I don’t. Sorry.

Q: The way graduation rates are calculated by the state and used as a measure of a university’s success has frustrated the UTEP administration for years. It’s a problem for any university that serves a lot of transfer students as well as low-income and first-generation students. What are your thoughts on the issue?

The four-year or the six-year graduation rate is not the end all be all of deciding the quality of a university – there is no doubt about that. But we also can’t dismiss that as an important data point.

The student population here tends to move in and out, and there are transfer students and it may take somebody a little bit longer because they have to work – I understand all that. But I want to do everything I can to help Dr. Natalicio and her staff bring that graduation rate up. 

We need to bring it up because there is an opportunity cost. It can mean increased debt, for example. There are a whole lot of things that go along with allowing those students to continue in school for seven years, eight years, whatever it is. 

It alone is not the Rosetta Stone of the quality of the university – and some people view it that way. I don’t view it that way.

We talked about it a little bit yesterday, and I know Dr. Natalicio is working really hard to bring it up. There are a number of ways to do that and I want to help with the resources any way I can.

Q: UTEP has a small pharmacy program but would like to turn it into a full-fledged pharmacy school. How much support does that effort have?

It has a great deal of support from the UT System. My role as the chancellor is really to recognize that Dr. Natalicio and her staff have the best understanding of what the people of this region need. 

My job is to listen, take her goals into consideration and do whatever I can to help her achieve those goals. We will do what we can.

As anybody in higher ed knows, you can’t have a great institution unless the people in the community you are serving buy into it. You’ve got great philanthropists. You’ve got great leadership with Paul Foster, Woody Hunt and a whole lot of other folks. 

Q: Affording higher education is a concern for many students and parents. What is the UT System doing to hold down the price?

The best investment you can make as a parent is in higher education. In Texas, we have the lowest tuition rates of just about any institution in the nation. 

We have to be thoughtful and deliberative about tuition. I understand we want to continue to make it as affordable as possible, but you are also trying to balance affordability with quality. 

The fact of the matter is that the state resources have dropped dramatically over the past 10 or 15 years, and therefore the tuition is the driver of the revenue. 

Q: You’ve been chancellor now for almost six months. What have been some of the lessons learned? I imagine running an academic system is very different from heading special forces.

Running a large organization is similar whether it is the Special Operations Command or the UT System.

Large organizations are about understanding people. It is about recognizing, when you are the guy in charge, that it isn’t about you; it is about the subordinate commands, if you will. In this case, it is the institutions that work for you. 

Whether they are generals and admirals or university presidents, there is a relationship that you have to establish. I haven’t worked for a board of regents before, but I have worked with a joint staff.

The transition for me at least has been pretty easy. You can ask my staff if it has been easy for them (Laughs). 

Q: I made my bed this morning in preparation for this meeting.

(Laughs) That’s good. I didn’t. I’m in a hotel and didn’t make the hotel bed.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105. Twitter: @ReporterRobby


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