“If you leave, go out the front door”

“If you leave, go out the front door…”

That’s what Leon Panetta said to me when I sought his advice about resigning as president of CSU Monterey Bay under fire from a small, but very active group of faculty, staff, and students.

Leon was, and still is, the most respected person in Monterey County. He came to CSU after leaving the Clinton White House in 1996. His goal was to return to Monterey County (his Congressional district and birthplace) and start a policy center at the university. He and his wife Sylvia created an extraordinary resource at the Panetta Institute and they have, in important ways, contributed to the definition of the university’s character since their arrival home. In short, we were very lucky to have him.

The conflict in question had been boiling for over two years. There were disagreements regarding the philosophy of the university and its larger purposes as well as disagreements about daily conduct and performance. Coming from Vermont, I was an outsider to both California and the CSU system, and these two things were being used as a level against me.

As the pressure mounted on me — including faculty resolutions, protests, a death threat, and a nighttime attack on my home during which my car’s tires were slashed — I was beginning to wonder whether it was time for a change, for me and for the university. When did it stop being just about me and begin hurting the longer-term prospects of the university’s development? Where did my larger responsibility lie?

So that day I was just a tired, dejected, and somewhat beaten-down guy looking for advice from a former Congressional colleague and a friend at the university. I summed up my thinking, pros and cons, for him and waited for his counsel. What he said has stayed with me ever since:

“I don’t think you should leave. This is a political situation and you have a lot of support here on campus and out in the community. Your leaving will only fuel the forces that are aligned against you and that will be bad for the university. So I think you should stay. But if you leave, go out the front door.”

“Go out the front door.” I decided, at that moment, to see the situation through, no matter what happened. You don’t bail on your friends, allies, and colleagues. That was a matter of taking his advice and support to heart, but I took a much larger lesson from Leon that day: Aim high, work hard, and be proud of what you stand for. And when you leave, go out the front door.

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