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Analysis: Culture Shock and UT's New Hires

A common thread is evident in the latest hires at the University of Texas System and at its flagship: The new leaders are disciplined and accustomed to enforcing their rules.

Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, was named the sole finalist to be chancellor of the University of Texas System on July 29, 2014. McRaven holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

Things got so bad at the University of Texas System that they called in a Navy SEAL.

Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of United States Special Operations Command, was named last week as the sole finalist to be the UT System’s next chancellor. The regents were unanimous in their decision — a hopeful sign from a panel that has often been divided about the leadership at the state’s top university.

McRaven’s hiring will be the first of two major changes at the top. He will succeed Francisco Cigarroa as chancellor. And a player to be named later — there is not even a formal list yet — will be the next president of the system’s flagship, the University of Texas at Austin. Bill Powers, the current president, is leaving in June.

Those are not the only high-profile leadership changes at the university. Sports led the way, as it often does, with a changing of the guard at the top of the athletics department and, shortly after that, the arrival of Charlie Strong to replace the state government’s highest-paid employee, football coach Mack Brown.

Strong’s players are in the middle of a culture shock: There is a new set of rules and no kidding about how serious it is. He not only suspended two players who had been charged with sexual assault — the NFL might take a lesson there — but also dismissed several others for unspecified team rules violations.

That has been hard on the examples, but instructive — and maybe inspiring — to the survivors. Fans cannot complain about the results, as Strong has not yet fielded a team. But they seem to like the tone he is setting.

Now the UT System is in for its own transition, moving from a pediatric surgeon and former university president in Cigarroa to McRaven, who somehow rode a journalism degree at UT-Austin to the top of the Navy’s elite special operations forces and now the chancellor’s job. Sometime around Jan. 1, he will stride into a culture that could use some combination of TLC and boot camp.

This hire has somehow satisfied factions that have been at war over the direction of higher education. The incoming chancellor has not weighed in on the proper role of a big university system. He has not joined the arguments over efficiency, the role of research, professor performance and popularity, or any other topics roiling higher education in the state.

The choice of McRaven won praise from all corners — Gov. Rick Perry, who has supported one regent’s persistent inquiries into the operations of UT-Austin; former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who leads an alumni group that has defended Powers; the unanimous regents who were prepared to vote Powers out of office; and even Powers himself.

The new guy could not possibly agree with all of those corners; somebody out there is in for a surprise.

The regents opted for star power and leadership talent over the kind of proven academic, fundraising and political ability that often top the list of desirable qualities in a chancellor.

Most of the state’s other big university systems have looked to politics, naming former state legislators, many of them formidable fundraisers, to lead them.

Walking into a running debate over the direction of the university might call for someone from that mold. But one of McRaven’s old bosses, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who also served as president of Texas A&M University, said the new hire would be okay.

“I think if Bill McRaven can handle the Pentagon politics, he can handle UT politics,” Gates said after the regents voted.

McRaven’s hiring is one of the last big moves in the UT leadership shuffle. Regents can turn now to their search for a new president at the flagship. And after taking the oath of office in January, the next governor can get to work on the next piece, appointing three regents to that board.

It could work. The football team might win games. The academic storm could calm. The culture might change.

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System 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.

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