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Remarks before Fireside Chat at the University of Texas

What a magnificent institution: UT.  And I want to thank President, Fenves who long before he assumed the leadership of this great public university, was an accomplished technologist and engineer.  All the students here who have joined us today, thank you for your engagement and interest in subjects that matter to your future and our security.

This morning I met with my long-time friend, Bill McRaven, your Chancellor, who, as you probably know, was once a four-star Admiral and Navy SEAL.  Bill is one of his generation’s most influential Naval officers.  In some ways, you could say his innovative spirit – and his enduring commitment to service – helps to embody the highest ideals of this university.  

Of course, two years ago, Bill gave a Commencement Address heard ‘round the world.  He proudly proclaimed this University’s motto, and no, I’m not talking about what he said about making your bed every morning.  I’m talking about how Bill proudly declared that “What starts here changes the world.”  And just by being on campus this morning, I’ve seen some of what you’re doing to make a better reality.

After my visit with Bill, I stopped by UT’s School of Social Work.  And there, I met an impressive group of researchers who are tackling something that’s important to us, that I’ll just mention to you, I was very impressed with the work there, and that’s the scourge of sexual assault across the UT system.  Which is, on university campuses, particularly offensive to us in the profession of arms and we’re determined to beat it. But I learned a lot and had an excellent exchange of information and ideas and I’m grateful to the people I was with earlier this morning.  And there’s a point also in that which is whether we are members of a prestigious academic community like this one, or part of a proud and noble institution like our Department of Defense, we encounter similar challenges.  And we should share a common commitment: to create an environment where everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, and we can get the best out of people.

Now, additionally, later this afternoon, I’ll visit an advanced computing center and tour a laboratory where scientists and engineers are making advances in neuromuscular robotics, advanced data sciences, and other fields.  So just in one day, I’m seeing how determined people are here at UT are to think differently and to deliver solutions to some of our most complex challenges.

Every day, we are challenging ourselves to do the same at the Department of Defense.  We have to, given the complex and multiple threats we face; not just ISIL, which we will defeat, but also North Korea, which is among others, firing ballistic missiles, Russia, which is among other things, illegally annexing Crimea, China attempting to change the calculus in the South China Sea, and Iran continuing to export malign influence.  We need the best talent America has to offer to meet these challenges and carry forward our responsibilities.  

As Secretary of Defense, I have the privilege of leading the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  But that’s not a birthright, that’s not a guarantee. We have to earn it again and again.   And I have to pass it on to those who come after me so that they have the same privilege I have. And to ensure that the force of tomorrow remains as great as the force of today, we in the Pentagon are needing to think, as I tell our folks, outside our five-sided box about the kinds of solutions and the kinds of careers and the kinds of challenges and the kinds of opportunities that will make the very best, like those represented in this room, continue to join our great institution.

And I’m proud that so many of you sitting in front of me have already made a decision to be part of this enterprise, which, to me, is the noblest thing you can do.  To the large number of ROTC Cadets with us today, I look forward to welcoming you one day as members of our Department of Defense community.

What you have chosen is consequential, makes a great difference – helping to defend one’s country and build a better world. There’s nothing better to wake up to than being part of that mission.

And pretty soon you’ll be assuming the awesome responsibilities of leadership – the responsibility of ensuring that our citizens, as well as men and women across the world, have the security they need to dream their dreams, raise their families, live lives that are full. That’s what it’s all about.

And whether you are part of ROTC or not, whether you’re a senior or a sophomore, you might be wondering what the world you’ll be entering into.  And there’s no question about it: you are living during a time of incredible change and challenge in a lot of parts of the world. 

Every time you turn on the television, or surf the internet, it seems there’s some new reason to be apprehensive about the world that awaits you.  And when you see the kind of horrendous attacks ISIL carried out in Brussels, you might ask yourself what you can do—I hope you might ask yourself what can do you do—how you can make a difference, how you can be a part of something bigger than yourself.  

And its’ a world of opportunities, too: wonderful, bright opportunities to leave a better world for future generations. Now, I admit that I didn’t think much about national security when I was where you are.  I was all wrapped up in physics, history, separately by the way, although the joke people make about me is that I’m now living the perfect marriage of physics and medieval things, sports.  But that changed a few years later when I listened to a speech about the future of technology in the military.  It helped me realize that I could make a difference—that I knew something—I could make a difference, and it would be in something of great consequence.

Those of you in ROTC are preparing to become warriors, but like all students here today, you’re also scientists, programmers, writers, mathematicians, social scientists, and so much more.  Every day each of you helps to crack the code in some way, and we need you to keep doing so, so that American retains its great strength as an incubator of ideas and innovation. Because that, second only to our people, is what makes our military the greatest.

For those of you who won’t be going into the military but may want to advance our mission and keep our nation secure, we’re committed to finding additional opportunities for you to make a contribution.

One year and one day ago – barely a month after I became Secretary of Defense – I went to my old high school in Philadelphia, and I laid out my commitment to building the Force of the Future - the all-volunteer force, because that’s what we have, that will defend our country in future generations.  Part of the reforms and investments we are making in that Force of the Future involve finding ways for more of our citizens – including students like you either in uniform or in some other way– to contribute to our mission.  In fact, a critical part of building the Force of the Future starts with what we’re doing for students like you, to improve and enhance our internship programs, to make them more effective at transitioning promising interns into productive professionals at the Department of Defense. That’s how we get good people in, get them to give us a try, and when they do that, many of them find that the meaning of being part of our mission, as I found, not too much older than you were, that they could not resist being a part of .

As part of the Force of the Future, we’re also bringing in more of America’s best and most innovative minds to the Pentagon.  That’s why we have created the Defense Digital Service, to bring in expertise from America’s technology community just to work for a specific time, or on a specific project.  Maybe some of the computer science majors here can come on board for a few months or for a few specific projects.  Perhaps they can even wear a hoodie, like Chris Lynch, the Director of the Defense Technical Service. Where are you Chris? There’s Chris back there. The only person in the Pentagon who wears a hoodie every day, but he runs our Defense Digital Service, which is just what it says, which is people like Chris who are able to come in and work for a time, and that’s OK, and even if they only come in for a time, and go back out again, and come back in again, it’s a tremendous source for us of fresh ideas. And for them, it’s a tremendous opportunity to contribute to this great mission.

As we’ve introduced reforms and investments to build this force of the future, we’ve always been mindful that the military is a profession of arms.  We’re not a business. We’re responsible for defending this country – for providing the security that allows everyone else – all of you and your parents and your friends and your fellow citizens – to go to school, go to work, and to one day, provide a better future for the next generation.

While the military cannot and should not replicate all aspects of the private sector, we can, should, and are borrowing practices, technologies, and management techniques that work for us, so that in future generations, we keep attracting people of the same high caliber we have today – people who will meet the same high standards of performance, ethics, honor, and trust we hold our force to today.

We’re making these investments and pushing forward with these reforms for one simple reason: so that the force of tomorrow can remain as strong as the force of today.  And to make that possible, we need more talented and dedicated people like you, men and women who are committed to making creative and lasting contributions to our national defense.

The opportunities you’ve had here at the University of Texas, those opportunities will soon become your obligations.  In a short period of time, you’ll have to put your talents and skills to some productive and practical use.  And I have complete confidence in your ability to make the most of your world-class education.  In fact, there may be a future Bill McRaven among the ROTC cadets in the audience, or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, or perhaps a future Secretary of Defense.

Wherever your career takes you, I’m confident you will be driven by the desire to be something larger than yourself.  That’s where the call to service begins – and it’s my great hope that you in some way or another will seek it out.  It’s been a privilege to be here on this campus, to be among you, and now I get a little chance to chat with you and answer some of your questions. I’m looking at the eyes out there and some people maybe even today as a consequence of this encounter will tip you over, and you’ll give us a try in one way or another. I guarantee you’ll find it one of the most rewarding things that you can do, in the wonderful lives that you all have ahead of yourselves.