AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When the University of Texas System sought a new chancellor, it turned away from the ivory tower candidates of academia and hired a war hero: the man who coordinated the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Retired Adm. William McRaven was lauded as the perfect leader for a mission to unite a 15-campus system that had been torn by strife among regents, their flagship school in Austin, former Republican Gov. Rick Perry and state lawmakers.
Yet barely a month on the job, McRaven has staked out positions on several of Texas' thorniest higher education policy debates — from guns to immigration — that put him at odds with some of the Legislature's new conservative leadership.
In rapid-fire succession, the former Navy SEAL came out against concealed handguns on campus — saying it would make classrooms "less safe" — and supported allowing universities to set their own tuition rates. He also opposes repealing a 2001 state law that grants in-state tuition rates to some immigrants living in Texas but without legal U.S. residency, calling it a "moral obligation."
But how much clout he'll have in swaying lawmakers on those issues remains unclear. Republican Sen. Konni Burton, a firebrand tea-party favorite, was perhaps most indicative of potential pushback when she recently challenged McRaven's position that concealed weapons would stifle free speech in universities. Burton called that a false argument and said the right to bear arms was "granted by God."
When asked Tuesday about potential skirmishes, McRaven— who led the U.S. Special Operations Command before taking the university job — told The Associated Press: "All I know is I have to take a position on these issues, and I have to take a position as an educator."
"I enjoy the dialogue," he added. "This is the best thing about our democracy."
Many viewed the San Antonio native and University of Texas graduate as an unassailable figure in staunchly conservative Texas, the man who took down the world's most notorious terrorist. But he is now in a highly political position that must answer to a governor-appointed board comprised mostly of multimillionaires, while also deftly navigating roiling policy debates.
Allowing concealed carry on campus has been one of the hottest issues in recent years before lawmakers. A Senate hearing on the GOP-backed proposal is set for Thursday, the same day McRaven will be a few blocks away at his first full Board of Regents meeting.
At McRaven's first appearance at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers smiled and thanked him for his military service. But in an hour-long question-and-answer session, they clearly indicated he may lose on these high-profile issues.
"He is unquestionably credible," said Sen. Kel Seliger, the Republican chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "Is he going to get his nose bumped? Yes. But it will be (done) respectfully."
Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, said Republicans should spend less time lauding McRaven and more time listening to him.
"Maybe we could do with fewer accolades and follow his lead and counsel," Whitmire said during the hearing.
Resistance from higher education officials has been seen as a major reason why concealed guns on campus bills have failed in previous years. McRaven's predecessor, Francisco Cigarroa, opposed allowing concealed carry on campus, and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster said McRaven speaks for the entire University of Texas System.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday that lawmakers should heed McRaven's advice on guns.
"I would caution anyone who intends to ignore Admiral McRaven when you're talking about arms and ammunition," Straus said Wednesday.
McRaven also has an ally at Texas A&M University, the flagship school in a separate university system. Incoming Texas A&M President Michael Young supports keeping in-state tuition for some immigrants and for allowing schools to set tuition rates.
"My view is: educate everybody who is going to stay in your state if you possibly can," Young said Monday. "Drag 'em off the streets, round 'em up and get them into college."
Young declined to comment on whether concealed weapons should be allowed at universities. But while president of the University of Utah, he sought to restrict guns on campus.
Texas' new lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, is now leading the conservative charge to allow concealed handguns on campuses. He declined to criticize McRaven or Young, but hinted that lawmakers may not listen to them.
"I have great respect for both leaders and fully recognize and support their right to disagree on any policy decisions we make," Patrick said.
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