Former CIA director speaks at Simon Benson Awards

Former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Simon Benson Awards on Thursday. The event, created to acknowledge Portland State alumni for philanthropic achievement, hosted over 1,400 guests. The Portland State University Foundation raised over $1 million.

PSU President Wim Wiewel addressed the crowd before distributing awards for philanthropy and alumni achievement.

Christine and David Vernier received the Simon Benson Award for philanthropy. Their company, Vernier Software & Technology, produces equipment for science classrooms. They were recognized for their outstanding work and generosity in the local and global community, as well as at the university.

“We’ve learned so much from these groups, we’ve really gotten more out of being involved with boards and committees and such than I feel like we’ve given,” Christine Vernier said. “It really makes us feel good to be able to give the time and the money to the nonprofits that we feel so deeply about and we will continue to do so. Hopefully we’ll be around for a lot of years to do so.”

Earle M. Chiles also received the Simon Benson Award for philanthropy for his work in Portland and across the country. Chiles has supported scholarships at PSU, as well as contributed to the Providence Portland Medical Center, the University of Portland and non-profit organizations.

The Simon Benson Award for alumni achievement went to Ramon S. Torrecilha, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at PSU.
Torrecilha is currently a professor of sociology at California State University—Dominguez Hills.

Later in the evening, Panetta expressed his gratitude for being asked to participate in the awards event.

“I’m also honored to be here at [PSU], because this is a great campus that is recognized for some tremendous programs in urban planning, social work, environmental studies, and in all of your efforts to try to create a better and more sustainable world,” Panetta said.

Panetta is considered a long-time advocate for the health of the world’s oceans. He helped create the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary during his time as congressman.

Sharing stories from his memoir Worthy Fights, Panetta began with a short explanation of his youth. He was born in Monterey, California to Italian immigrants. He spoke of his parents being small business owners who taught him to work hard in his youth, and how proud they were of him when he was elected to Congress.

One of the first acts Panetta carried out as director of the CIA was to prepare the military to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He was also vocal with his opinion that other countries assist in efforts toward world security, and he condemned the reduction of the
defense budget.

“You cannot deal with the size deficits the country is confronting by simply cutting the discretionary side of the budget,” Panetta said. “You have got to look at the mandatory side of the budget, which is two-thirds of the federal budget, and you also have to look at revenue.”

Student protesters

For some, Panetta’s invitation to the Simon Benson Awards was controversial.

Christian Britschgi is a senior in the political science department and member of Young Americans for Liberty, a Libertarian organization on campus. He and other students organized a protest to voice their objection to the speaker and his policies.

“We’re here to protest his policies and actions while in and out of office. His covering up of torture, his overseeing of drone strikes in neutral nations such as Pakistan and Yemen, his defending of ‘enhanced interrogation’ tactics, and his advocacy of unilateral military strikes on Syria. He believes the war on terror should last another 30 years,” Britschgi said. “Basically, he believes anywhere there is an Islamist with a gun, America should be at war. I find all of those positions abhorrent.”

As a result of multiple last minute venue changes, YAL, in conjunction with College Republicans and Democrats, were unable to pull the student support they had hoped for. Only a handful of students attended the protest, with those few quickly leaving.