Auburn's Burgess inspires summer graduates to live life by Auburn Creed

Published: August 12, 2014
Updated: August 27, 2014
Font Size

Article body

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess said he doesn't remember anything about the speaker who addressed the Auburn University Class of 1974.

Not who it was or what they said. He isn't even certain there was one.

So when Burgess was asked to speak at Auburn's 2014 summer graduation ceremonies on Aug. 2, he was determined to offer advice that would at least serve them well into the future.

"Be the standard by which all others are measured and I guarantee you will find yourself a success," said Burgess.

He even suggested following the "Golden Rule" – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

"How you treat and interact with others says a lot about you," he said.

Burgess challenged the graduates to know no limits and take advantage of the creative technology available in the world. He reminded them that it wasn't that long ago that the Cloud (Microsoft's storage system) was in the sky, 4G (the speed of a device) was a parking place and Twitter (the popular social media site) was just a sound.

"He talked a lot about modern things such as how we move information today as opposed to how we used to do it," said Sam Hayford, who received a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. "He seemed humbled by being asked to do the ceremony. I remember that and thought it was kind of cool."

"I thought Gen. Burgess's speech was perfect for our age generation," added Laurel Looney, who received a Bachelor of Science in nursing from the School of Nursing. "I enjoyed how he talked about the things we will bring to the table when we begin our first jobs. Being technologically savvy, wanting to work with others and striving for the best are a few things he mentioned we are strong in. It's these traits that we will use to steer our paths into the future."

Burgess was introduced as a living example of the Auburn Creed, including education, hard work and service to country. After leaving the Plains as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Burgess spent most of the next 38 years in the upper levels of military intelligence and security, including service as director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. He returned to Auburn in 2012 as the senior counsel for national security programs, cyber programs and military affairs.

Clearly humbled by the comparison to Auburn's beloved belief system, Burgess noted that, "George Petrie's words are as relevant today as they were in 1945. The Auburn Creed serves as a foundation for life."

Looney agreed, noting that "Gen. Burgess's speech empowered each of the graduates and charged us to be true Auburn men and women by living our lives by the Auburn Creed."

Auburn awarded 1,150 degrees: 732 bachelor's degrees, 296 master's degrees, 102 doctorates, 17 education specialist degrees and three pharmacy degrees.

Full text of Gen. Burgess's speech:

Thank you for that very kind introduction, though all it really points out to folks in attendance is that they have got another old guy with a set of remarks to go through before we get to the real event. I tried to remember who spoke at my graduation and as you might imagine I failed to remember or have any idea who spoke. I do remember the family members and loved ones who were in attendance and I remember my commissioning as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but after that there is not much there. So with that in mind I will do my best to follow my own three cardinal rules for public speaking – enunciate, be brief and be seated.

President Gogue, Trustee Dumas, distinguished faculty, staff, parents, family and most importantly, you the graduates.

I am humbled and honored to be asked to be your commencement speaker.

There are few moments more exciting than a college graduation and perhaps none that more clearly symbolize the strength of our great nation, our confidence in its future and the wealth of our society.

I served in the military for over 38 years as an intelligence officer and except for a few days testifying on Capitol Hill, I wouldn't trade a single day of it. It's been a wonderful life of public service. Exciting, challenging, fascinating, and I would argue, necessary and now I find that I get to continue that life and career at a school I love – Auburn University.

Early on in an intelligence career we learn a very valuable lesson. There are only four outcomes to any crisis situation. You can have a policy success, a diplomatic success, an operational success or an intelligence failure. The successes we enjoyed in the intelligence community were many and never talked about. That is the way it should be. But let the intelligence community make a mistake and everybody and their brother knows about it. It's not right or it's not wrong – it's just the way it is. There are a lot of reasons why we have intelligence failures and I am not going to stand up here and lecture you on why that is. That is not the purpose of my talk today.

The world that I and others in this audience grew up in is a lot different than the world this class will find itself in. The world that you face is a very complex security environment marked by a broad spectrum of dissimilar threats, including rising regional powers and highly adaptive and resilient transnational terrorist networks. It is much less predictable in terms of outcomes given the uneven demographic and economic growth that is occurring even as we move towards globalization.

Technology proliferation and increased competition for resources are here to stay. For all of the challenges we face in this world – about which we read and hear about everyday – let me note that you, the Class of 2014, are entering an era of global interdependence that is full of promise and opportunity. I said that I thought the world was different. That means it is changing. Your generation will need to adapt to that change and that transition. I think former GE Chairman Jack Welch got it right when he said, "When the rate of change outside is faster than the rate of change inside … the end is near." Will Rogers summed it up by saying, "Even if you are on the right track, you will be run over if you just sit there."

It is important to not only recognize that things are changing around us, but it is more important I think to understand the change that is taking place.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am talking about. Let's look at two basic components of our society, population and the information revolution.

Around the time I was born, the world's population was 3.4 billion. In 2000, the world's population was 6.1 billion. By 2020, it is estimated to be 7.6 billion and by 2030, it may be close to 8.3 billion. As I said, it's important to understand those numbers because that's all they are – just numbers. But if we look at where the birth rates are increasing and where they are declining we start to understand the global impact. Asia and Africa will account for most of that population growth. The youngest countries, that are those countries where under 30 represent 60 percent of the population, will be in Sub-Saharan Africa. What does that mean to us? Should it concern us that there will be a lack of arable land, and that access to food, water and energy will be at risk? Will unstable governments struggling to provide for their people still be the norm? Will resource competition still drive social unrest?

And what about the information revolution? We live in an age where information is instantaneous. Just thinking to a few years after I graduated from Auburn was when we had the first 24/7 news network. IBM's PC was still under development and a mobile phone network was in its basic infancy. Fast forward to 2005 – Facebook did not exist for most. Twitter was still a sound. The Cloud was in the sky. 4G was a parking place. Applications went to colleges and universities and LinkedIn was a prison. Today we have bad actors utilizing social media to advance their causes. Terrorist groups have their own web page, their own web master and protocols for entering the website. 214 terrorists are using Twitter and one has over 70,000 followers. By 2020, the number of internet users or whatever replaces the internet of today is expected to double to over 4 billion users. So, again, what does that mean to us? Technology and the Cloud will provide the crowd with a voice. Ones and zeroes on computers will become weapons to hack, steal and destroy other informational systems.

So what does all this mean to you, the Class of 2014? My generation is being told you are the best educated, most technically literate of any generation of Americans. You know no limits. You feel like you're entitled to everything. You are highly creative and technologically advanced. You believe anything and everything is possible. You crave teamwork, you crave fun and you demand social relationships with everyone.

So, you should seize this moment. This is your time, but don't forget those that have gone before you blazing the trail, setting the standard and ensuring that the opportunity would be there for you. Don't forget those that will follow after you and the fact that others helped you get to where you are today and in the future. Let me urge you to always remember the hope and optimism that you feel right now. Never let it go. The more you draw on the excitement of this moment, the more energy you will have to overcome the challenges that lie ahead, and the greater contributions you will make to your country and to the world.

People often ask my thoughts on what it takes to be successful or what the secrets to good leadership are. I don't believe I've got any great revelations for you as you enter this new phase of life, but as any good young staff officer or speaker I can encapsulate it in three thoughts. This is clearly the Cliff Notes version. (Not sure any of you even know what I am referring to but it is the only way I made it through American and British Literature many years ago). First, as Clint Eastwood made famous in his Dirty Harry movies – "A good man (or woman) has got to know his limitations." Know yourself. Know and understand your strengths and weaknesses. Be sure enough of yourself to seek outside opinions and advice on those strengths and weaknesses. Adapt them or learn ways to mitigate them when necessary.

Second, I think our character defines us. Our character determines whether ours will be lives well lived or not. Character is defined as the stable and distinctive qualities built into an individual's life which determines his or her response regardless of circumstances. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Character is higher than intellect." I couldn't agree more with Mr. Emerson. This school has helped you develop your intellect and I hope it has also helped to continue to refine and mold or develop your character in a positive way. One of my favorite sayings is that "You measure a person's character by how they act when no one is watching, and by the choices they make when they believe no one will ever know." But you will know and at the end of the day you should measure yourself against your own standards. Set those standards high. Never settle. Be the standard against whom all others are measured and I guarantee that you will be a success.

Third, practice the Golden Rule every day. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Over my time in the U.S. Government, I was introduced to a lot of different technologies. Some of them are still secret. If there is one thing that I have learned over many years the greatest asset that any organization has is its people. They are the greatest resource. They are the key to any success. I used to say that I like to put the personal in personnel. How you treat and interact with others says a lot about you as a person.

So, I want to offer my sincerest congratulations to you all, the graduates, for your achievements, and for what you are about to embark upon as you begin this next phase of your life. Also, make a difference. You have been given something and earned something that is immeasurable. Don't waste it. George Petrie's words from 1945 are as relevant today as they were then and will be in the future. The Auburn Creed can serve us all as a foundation for life.

Again, congratulations, God speed and thank you for listening to me today, though you really didn't have much choice. May God continue to bless you, Auburn University and the United States of America.

Related Links