“Do something bigger than yourself.”

By Michael Blumfield

alum-mabus-1In his seven years as the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus ’70 (MS) has not shrunk from a fight for change. With opposition from both inside and outside his military branch, Mabus has pushed for:

  • Expanded opportunities for women, including allowing them to serve in submarines, increasing maternity leave from 6 weeks to 18 weeks, and letting them assume combat roles in the Navy and Marine Corps;
  • Reduced reliance on fossil fuels, with aggressive goals for the Navy to use alternative sources such as wind and solar power, biofuels, and nuclear power for its ships and bases;
  • Attracting a wider group of candidates for naval service by reopening long-dormant ROTC operations at elite schools such as Harvard and Yale, as well as more diverse institutions such as Rutgers and Arizona State.

His efforts are perhaps all the more remarkable in that, by law and tradition in recent decades, service secretaries are less powerful than they were in an earlier era—subject to vetoes by the Secretary of Defense or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Nonetheless, Mabus, 67, has been an active proponent of change, both real and symbolic, getting into dustups with others for such matters as naming naval vessels for labor leader Cesar Chavez, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and, most recently, slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

What’s been driving him to push for such changes? Mabus credits his enlightened parents, raising him in Mississippi at a time of seismic shifts in civil rights.

“You could see that segregation was wrong in every possible way,” he says. “It was just so evident.” Years later, as governor of the state, Mabus endeavored to move Mississippi from its perpetual bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in socioeconomic status.

“If you’re the poorest state in the nation, there is no risk in trying new things,” he says. “The risk is in continuing to do what you’re doing.”

He has taken his vision and administrative skills to a variety of positions, including stints as a CEO and as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Though he later earned a JD from Harvard, Mabus credits Johns Hopkins, where he received a degree in political science, with giving him the lifelong career advantage of knowing how to think critically and how to write.

“When I was governor, I would get memos and letters that I couldn’t understand,” he says. “I’d scribble across them, ‘better memo’ or ‘better letter.’”

And while morality and fairness are a large dose of his motivation to seek change, so is simple logic. That push for a more diverse workforce in the Navy? It’s because studies show that gathering the views of many produces better results than relying on a small group of experts. Turning to alternative energy sources wasn’t just to satisfy environmental concerns, it also saved American lives from being lost while trying to protect or access Middle Eastern oil reserves, he notes.

Of course, the fundamental task of the Navy is to provide defensive security across the globe, and when Mabus took the helm it had fewer ships sailing under the American flag than needed for that mission, he says. He’s stepped up the number of ships under contract each year since assuming office to reach that number—308—by 2020.

With his vast experience as a leader, it’s not surprising that he’s a frequent commencement speaker. What does he tell graduating seniors?

“At some point in your life, do something bigger than yourself,” he says. “Do something that will make people’s lives better. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but at the end of your life, you’re probably not going to look back on how much stuff you’ve accumulated.”

Mabus will be retiring with the end of the Obama administration and won’t be in office when the Navy has the full comportment of ships he’s seeking. There’s a related story involving his father he tells concluding his commencement speeches.

His dad had owned a hardware store, then went into the lumber business, dying at 85. “In the last year of his life, he didn’t cut a single tree,” Mabus says. “But he planted thousands, knowing that he would never see them, but that his children and his grandchildren would.”

His final words to the graduates: “Decide what trees you’re going to plant.”