Leon Panetta, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, traveled to Buena Vista University on Oct. 7, for the 22nd William W. Siebens American Heritage Lecture. In the afternoon, Panetta answered questions from a student panel, followed by evening remarks and a Q&A session. Panetta is known for his achievements while serving in many influential positions in the U.S. government.
During the afternoon panel session, Panetta embraced the spirit of the lecture series and discussed the nature of American liberties. He told the story of his parents who immigrated to the United States from Italy in order to, in their words, ‘give their children the best life.’ Panetta emphasized that this desire to make each generation better is a mark of a true democracy. He also shared with the audience advice he received from a Jesuit priest during his college years at Santa Clara University who said, “God provided you life. But you’re the one who determines whether you have a life.”
The six student panelists on stage with Panetta were chosen through a competitive application process last spring and worked during the summer to research Panetta. Once school started in the fall, the students worked with faculty coaches to develop a list of questions to ask at the event.
The students panelists were Elizabeth Kim, senior biology and Spanish major; Sarah Mackey, junior math and computer science major; Madeleine McCormick, junior digital media major; Alejandra Mendoza, junior exceptional student service and instruction major; Sarah Schlichte, senior biology major; and Tyler Smith, junior athletic training major. The two alternates were Morgan Langan, senior environmental science major and Mackenzie Rappe, sophomore digital media major.
The faculty coaches were Dr. Andrea Frantz, associate professor of digital media; Dr. Nathan Backman, assistant professor of computer science; Dr. Brad Best, professor of political science; Dr. Thomas Bonagura, assistant professor of biology; and Captain Thomas Gorman, assistant professor of military science served as the faculty moderator for the event.
Mackey, who completed an internship with the U.S. Department of Defense last summer, asked the first question, which focused on Panetta’s opinion on the optimal balance between government transparency and the need for secrecy?
Panetta related the question back to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, talking about the aftermath, the questions Americans raised and the new policies that were put into place as a result of the attacks.
“So there was a system of checks and balances developed as a result of that, that ensured that freedoms would be protected at the same time that we gain the information that we needed,” said Panetta. “And I think to a large extent, that system has worked.”
Mackey said she was honored to have been able to sit next to someone who’s made such a difference. She said it was difficult for her to choose the right question to ask, but she felt like her question was answered fully and the experience was rewarding.
Smith, an ROTC cadet, asked Panetta about his current work as Co-Chairman of the Commission for Countering Violent Extremism, and what actions that group might suggest to undermine the recruitment strategies of extremists. Panetta discussed different efforts that the U.S. needed to make in order to stop extremists groups from forming and growing.
“One key thing is that we are going to have to build a coalition of countries, particularly modern Arab countries, that are willing to work with us in this effort,” Panetta said.
Smith said he agreed with Panetta’s assertions that the world community needs to work together. He noted a highlight of the day was when Panetta came to visit the group of panelists in their waiting room before they took the stage together. Smith found Panetta to be very personable.
Kim, who asked a question about the role Panetta’s Catholic faith played in him difficult decisions during his career, was thankful for the opportunity to be part of the panel and said she was blessed to be a part of the experience. Kim said she appreciated his openness about his faith and that his answer inspired her to build up her faith to influence others with her life as he has.
McCormick’s question focused on the current political climate in the U.S. and the rhetoric of fear. In his answer, Panetta said it appears to him that today neither political party wants to get anything. He talked about the sides being so divided that they are no longer productive.
“In our democracy, we depend on the trust of the American people in our system of government. And that trust is beginning to break down, and so it’s feeding into a lot of fears, a lot of hatreds, a lot of concern,” Panetta said. “And so that’s created even a greater split among the American people, and it’s being reflected in the politics of this country.”
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Miranda Pollock, who attended the afternoon session appreciated hearing Panetta’s take on today’s political situation.
“I think it was very interesting to hear what politics were, what it is now and give us some perspective of what it could be if we actually had a different political system or had a different ideology so that we weren’t as separated in beliefs or were willing to tear down walls and actually work together,” she said.
Assistant Professor of Biology Thomas Bonagura, who served as a faculty coach for the panelists, was pleased with the afternoon event.
“The fact that [Panetta] was excited, meant that we did a good job, that he liked our questions. So I think overall we’re really happy,” he said.
At a reception in the Siebens Forum after the panel and before the evening session, Panetta visited with attendees. He socialized with students, professors and community members, and said he was impressed with the students and satisfied with how the session went.
“I thought it was great,” Panetta said. “We work with students at our Panetta Institute, so I’m really used to dealing with young people, and the fact that they bring a certain objective view point to the challenges facing this country, that’s what I appreciate. The fact that the students were asking straight questions, there were no curveballs. It’s what our democratic process should be all about.”
At an invitation-only dinner in the Dows Ballroom, BVU President Fred Moore welcomed everyone and opened the evening by introducing William W. Siebens, son of Harold
Walter Siebens. Panetta then took the stage offering remarks highlighting his Italian heritage, his time in the Army, and his service to the government. The short lecture was followed by dinner and a brief Q&A.
Panetta concluded the evening with a story about a military family that lost two sons because they put their lives on the line for the United States. He argued that if the men and women who fight for this country can risk their lives for what they believe in, the leadership of this country should be able to use a little bit of that courage to govern. As a proud American, Panetta ended on a high note sharing his thoughts on everything the country is and should be.
“Ladies and gentleman, that’s the sound of the trumpet that calls us to action. Young and old, soldier and citizen, member of Congress, President of the United States. The call to duty that goes to the heart and soul of our democracy. The responsibility to fight and never stop fighting until we have assured ourselves of an America in renaissance. Until we have assured ourselves that we will be a country that will provide that dream of a better life for our children. And until we assure ourselves in Lincoln’s words, of a government of, by and for all people. And frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it.”
Photos courtesy of Buena Vista University
Co-Written for The Tack with Dee Friesen