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McRaven not alone in moving from military to academia leadership

Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U. S. Special Operations Command, speaks to airmen of the 58th Special Operations Wing during a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base on June 18, 2013.

Adm. William McRaven, who was tapped this week to take the reins of the University of Texas system, has plenty of leadership experience. He served as head of the U.S. Special Operations Command and commanded the team that killed Osama bin Laden. He worked as strategic planning director on the staff of the National Security Council.

But storied as his career may be, McRaven, who is retiring his post with the Navy, has had no experience in leading a major institution of higher education.

And that is probably a good thing, experts say, as universities, faced with growing outside pressures, from the political to the financial, increasingly look beyond academia for leadership.

"Through our history we've seen some very successful university leaders who came to the university from outside of higher education," said Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "We are seeing a growing trend in which, especially at the system level, we see a lot more examples of appointments that come from outside of traditional higher education."

While the transition to academic leadership is generally successful, it can be difficult, Broad said, as university governance is unique. Leadership is split among a board of regents, a chancellor, individual university presidents and other stakeholders.

"For me, the bottom line measure is how well they can perform in a very different culture and governance structure," Broad said. "There are some other commitments that a successful transition requires. They need to make a purposeful commitment to not only embracing shared government, but to ensure that they are creating an environment of mutual trust and respect - and collegiality."

Universities bringing in outsiders to lead is nothing new. Before he was U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of Columbia University - a position he took after leading U.S. military forces in World War II.

More recently, Robert Gates led A&M University's flagship campus for four years, from 2002 to 2006, between turns directing the CIA and serving as the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security and Janet Napolitano, who also served as Arizona governor, took office as president of the University of California in 2013. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took over as president of Purdue University the same year.

And McRaven will take the UT chancellor seat from Francisco Cigarroa, a surgeon, who has held the position since 2009.

A new perspective

Outside leaders can bring their own set of expertise to universities, especially to those who might need someone especially skilled in the political or financial realm, as many universities have come under political scrutiny and have been faced with deep budget cuts.

"I think some of this has to do with a growing complexity of the presidential roles and a lot more of the president's time is spent externally, rather than internally, with the faculty and students, whether that external time is with the legislature or a governor, whether it is fundraising, whether it is addressing intercollegiate athletics," Broad said. "There are a growing array of really import areas where presidents need to invest time and effort that really are not directly connected to what happens in the classroom."

Napolitano, for instance, has brought a level of visibility to the University of California that faculty and other leaders there say has already been beneficial, said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Before joining the organization, McPherson himself was a transplant to higher education. He had experience in government - as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury - and the private sector - holding several executive positions at Bank of America - before leading Michigan State University for 11 years.

McPherson said that experience helped him lead the university. "It will be an adjustment, but every time you take a new job it will be an adjustment," he said about McRaven joining UT. "It takes effort on everybody's part."

Used to 'friendly fire'

McRaven will take the lead of a university system that has been wrought with tension in recent years, as its business-minded, governor-appointed board of regents has clashed with the president of the flagship Austin campus, Bill Powers, a strong supporter of traditional academia. Cigarroa, the outgoing chancellor, said his relationship with Powers had become broken.

Moving into a position that could see its share of infighting won't be difficult for McRaven, said P. J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman and Air Force colonel, who himself took a job in academia after leaving the government.

"Admiral McRaven has spent his share of time in combat and in front of Congress, so he is used to taking enemy and friendly fire. He has spent a career navigating around potentially hostile terrain, avoiding danger spots and taking decisive action," Crowley said. "Facing competing power centers across the Texas educational system will make him think he is back in Iraq. He is a genuine hero. He has run a highly complex structure and is familiar with the concepts of being a supported as well as supporting commander. These skills are relevant and will be critical in his new position."

Everyone at UT, meanwhile, has expressed interest in moving beyond the tension. Helping with that will be one of McRaven's main missions, Broad said.

"Issues of mutual trust and respect and a commitment to collegiality have been trouble spots in the past months at the University of Texas," she said. "So that is a really key point for the next chancellor to heal whatever remaining wounds there are to rebuild trust, respect and collegiality."

Reporter Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.

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