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Bill McRaven, a white man with gray hair wearing a suit, speaks at NACUBO

William H. McRaven speaks at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

EPNAC/Jim Remington

ORLANDO, Fla.—Five years ago, as Admiral William H. McRaven was concluding his term as chancellor of the University of Texas system, his final appearance before the university’s Board of Regents included this memorable line: “The toughest job in the nation is the one of an academic or health institution president.”

Coming from McRaven, best known for overseeing the nation’s special operations forces and for leading the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the statement might have seemed like a supportive nod to the 16 campus presidents whose work he oversaw as chancellor—a going-away gift of sorts. But five years later, McRaven stands by the statement.

“It was not hyperbole—I stick by those words,” McRaven said in an interview Monday after a keynote speech at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers here.

Why? “The complexity of being a president and all of the constituents you deal with on a day-to-day basis,” McRaven explained, listing donors, alumni, the faculty, students, state legislators and regents, among others. “The president has got to be able to manage all of that, and nobody ever seems completely satisfied.

“You’re making hundreds if not thousands of small decisions a day,” he added. “You hope you get 80 percent of them right, but of course the 20 percent you don’t get right you get criticized for.”

Hearing a respected national figure like McRaven double down on his assertion from five years ago is probably music to the ears of many campus leaders, whose jobs have almost certainly gotten harder during that time. The average tenure of a college leader fell to 5.9 years in 2022 from 6.5 in 2016 (and 8.6 in 2006), according to the most recent edition of the American College President Study from the American Council on Education.

Campus leaders also operate in a political environment that is more difficult than it has ever been, especially for those who oversee institutions that are decidedly liberal-leaning in states where the political winds are blowing in the opposite direction.

McRaven worked for presidents of both parties and describes himself as “right dead center,” and he offered a pragmatic answer to a question about how today’s college leaders in Texas or Florida might handle the situation they find themselves in.

As a president, “you’re going to compromise a lot—maybe on a hundred things in the course of a day,” McRaven said. “You have to recognize that your job at an academic institution is about academic integrity, so you have to understand what that is and where you’re not going to compromise.”

“If it is anything that in some way diminishes [the academic reputation of your institution], because you’re not allowing freedom of speech, you’re not allowing faculty members to pursue a particular course that they think is academically important, then you’re failing as an academic leader,” he said.

“You have to be prepared to stand up before your chancellor, your regents, the Legislature, and say, ‘This is the line over which I will not step.’”

What if a college leader’s arguments are dismissed, a reporter asked, pointing to situations concerning topics of diversity and race in an ever-growing number of states today?

Elected leaders who enact policies that restrict what public universities can teach (or that allow open carrying of weapons, as the Texas Legislature did over McRaven’s objections while he was chancellor of UT) are “exercising their right as legislators,” McRaven said.

“That’s frustrating, of course it is. You have an obligation as a leader to say why we should be teaching this or shouldn’t be doing that. You make your case. Then you have one or two options. You can either accept the decision of the state Legislature or you can resign. It’s that simple.”

When Texas enacted open carry of weapons on campus during his tenure, McRaven decided to “make the best of it” rather than resign, which he called “almost the easy way out.” (Some college leaders in Florida have compromised rather than resign because they knew they’d be replaced by people who would be far less friendly to their institutions.)

McRaven’s final thoughts on the subject were cautionary for campus leaders. “It is your obligation as a leader to make the case,” he said. “But if you can’t make the case, guess what, maybe you’re not always on the right side. You have to accept that.”

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