With planning for our 2012 Annual Conference & Expo already well under way, I am pleased to announce that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will be our opening plenary speaker in Houston.

Robert M. GatesSecretary Gates has long been a champion of a balanced approach to global politics, recognizing that multiple approaches are necessary to create a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable world. As defense secretary under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Dr. Gates called for strengthening U.S. resources behind a full array of diplomatic tools and was especially vocal in advocating a stronger role for the Department of State.

He also stressed the need for U.S. students to explore global horizons, saying:

One of the worries I’ve had over the years is the lack of foreign language skills on the part of American young people. From an economic standpoint, from a cultural standpoint, our ability to engage with the rest of the world is absolutely critical. It’s all about education.

Of course, Dr. Gates is no stranger to higher education. He served as president of Texas A&M University from 2002-2006, and previously as dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M from 1999-2001. While president at Texas A&M, he was a strong advocate for international students in the United States, writing in The New York Times:

No policy has proved more successful in making friends for the United States, during the cold war and since, than educating students from abroad at our colleges and universities... For this reason, we simply cannot tolerate a visa process that fails to differentiate quickly and accurately between legitimate scholars and students -- and individuals who may pose genuine security risks.

Robert Gates has had a career in public service spanning over four decades, including time in the U.S. Air Force and 27 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, ultimately serving as director of central intelligence from 1991-1993. On his last day in office as defense secretary, President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. This fall, Dr. Gates was appointed the next chancellor of the College of William and Mary, his alma mater, having previously served on the boards of the American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

NAFSA is pleased to welcome Dr. Gates as our opening plenary speaker in Houston. His vision of a world in which problems are solved through civil dialogue and informed debate speaks to our core values as educators, and I sincerely hope you will join us as Dr. Gates addresses our audience at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.