As Admiral William H. McRaven prepares to become the next chancellor of the University of Texas System after three years as the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, few can understand his situation as well as Robert Gates.
Gates previously served as U.S. secretary of defense under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and he also served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George H.W. Bush. He had a stint as interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and he served more than four years as the university's president.
Not only has he made the transition from the world of national security to that of Texas higher education, Gates has worked with McRaven. Gates was defense secretary when McRaven coordinated the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
While he has not served as an academic administrator before, McRaven is not unfamiliar with Texas higher education. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He followed up with a master's degree from the Navy Postgraduate School.
Gates — who holds a bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary, a master's degree at Indiana University and a doctorate degree from Georgetown — spoke to the Tribune on Wednesday, the day after the UT system announced McRaven as the sole finalist for chancellor. Gates talked about topics including how the admiral's military background could have prepared him to be a university system chancellor.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Tribune: Is the experience of serving as the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command translatable to serving in Texas higher education?
Robert Gates: I guess I would say it’s comparable to leading the CIA and then leading a higher education institution in Texas, because it’s really all about leadership of large institutions.
In both cases, the largest group of people you’re dealing with are, for the most part, between the ages of 18 and 25. But it is the leadership and management of large, complex organizations that I think a background like Bill McRaven’s or mine bring to the position.
I would also say that in terms of dealing with university presidents, faculty and so on, you are also accustomed to dealing with highly skilled professionals in the intelligence and military world. You know that they are the ones that deliver the mission of the institution. So I think there’s a respect there for their role that is also inherent.
TT: Is there anything in the state's higher education environment that McRaven will probably not be prepared for?
Gates: I think he has spent a lifetime being ready for the unexpected. He’s dealt with the Congress, so he knows how to deal with a legislature.
He obviously is familiar with UT-Austin and has a special relationship there, a special affection. My guess is that all of that will stand him in good stead. My guess is the Texas Exes [UT-Austin's alumni organization] are very happy to have a person of his caliber take over the system.
TT: What can you say about your personal dealings with him? What characteristics stand out?
Gates: First of all, he’s a wonderful person. He’s got a good sense of humor. He’s self-effacing. He’s easy to work with.
He is demanding. You don’t become a four-star admiral without enforcing accountability and making sure things get done.
But I think from a personal standpoint, people are going to find him very easy to work with.
TT: There has been a lot of tension at the UT System recently. Will McRaven be able to handle the pressure of university politics?
Gates: I think if Bill McRaven can handle the Pentagon politics, he can handle UT politics.
TT: McRaven is perhaps best known for coordinating the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden, which you witnessed. Are there any lessons or takeaways from that experience that would apply to the job he’s preparing for now?
Gates: I’m not sure there are any direct applications there. What comes out of that, that may have relevance, is that he’s a very careful planner. He’s inclusive in decision-making. He wants to get input from everybody who is going to be impacted by decisions.
I think those are some lessons from his career, from some specific operations, as well as from his other jobs.
TT: Did it surprise you that McRaven would decide that serving as chancellor of the UT System would be his next step?
Gates: Actually, no.
The idea that he’d want to do something like this and would want to stay in a place where he could still be serving with young people, I think, is not a surprise at all.
TT: What would your advice for him be?
Gates: I think it would be pretty much what I did at Texas A&M.
That is to start by reaching out to people around the system and listening, particularly t0 the leaders of each of the constituent universities in the UT System. It's about getting a good picture of the ground truth in terms of what are the problems, what are the challenges, what are your ideas for how we might address those.
I think when you’re coming into a new environment, that’s always the best way to start out.
TT: Does he have the academic credentials necessary for the job? Or are academic credentials necessary?
Gates: Is the question, do you have academic experience or do you have a Ph.D.?
There are a number of examples of people who have led universities who have not had Ph.D.s and have been quite successful.
On the other hand, I have a Ph.D., but I had no academic experience before I became president of Texas A&M — other than as the interim dean at the George H.W. Bush School. And I don’t think that had a negative impact at all.
I really think it’s all about leadership, particularly at the system level.
I just think this is a great appointment.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.