Alumnus turns passion for CSUS against Palin

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin came between Michael Leaveck and the school he loves.

Now, this ex-Navy man and former California State University, Stanislaus, alumnus of the year is deployed on a new cause. Once a leader in the Vietnam Veterans of America and like-minded groups, Leaveck is among the most outspoken opponents of Palin's scheduled June 25 appearance at CSUS.

The 63-year-old Leaveck returned his 1990 alumni award. He's stirring up the 2,886 members of a Facebook group formed to oppose Palin's appearance. He's using his fluency with tax documents to flag questions about the nonprofit group that's bringing Palin to Turlock.

He's definitely not pulling his punches.

"I just went ballistic," Leaveck said, recounting his first reaction upon hearing of Palin's pending appearance. "Free speech is something I fully support, but what does she have to do with the university?"

Now living in the Washington, D.C., area, where he works with fine art, Leaveck said he hesitates to offer too much personal information because passions are running so hot in the Palin controversy.

A 1973 graduate of CSU, Stanislaus, and a self-described liberal, Leaveck hardly speaks for all of the school's alumni. A number have embraced the prospect of Palin's high-profile appearance, and school officials indicate the $500-a-head tickets have been selling briskly.

Palin's speech at an otherwise apolitical college celebration will mark a temporary shift from the campaign-style speeches she's been delivering recently.

"Don't retreat, reload," Palin declared Friday, speaking in New Orleans at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, "and that's not a call for violence."

The former Alaska governor on Friday accused the Obama administration of "coddling enemies and alienating allies" and said the president prefers to "vacillate, bow and dither."

CSUS 'small but innovative'

Palin was born in 1964, the year Leaveck entered the Navy as an enlisted man right out of a Michigan high school. Leaveck trained in electronics and handled cryptographic equipment aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Turner Joy and other warships.

After his honorable discharge in October 1967, Leaveck found himself in California. He had come to know the state from his Navy service and liked what he saw. As a newly minted California resident, he could afford enrolling at Modesto Junior College and CSU, Stanislaus.

"It was small and sleepy, but it was innovative, too," Leaveck said. "I thought it was a pretty neat place."

He majored in sociology, graduated, then worked for nearly six years as director of the university's veterans programs. Enrollment by veterans and their dependents tripled during that period to about 900.

"We were going out and finding veterans working at the canneries and on the unemployment lines," Leaveck said, "and we would convince them they could go to school and we would provide support services."

Leaveck went on to work in the state Legislature before becoming legislative director for the Vietnam Veterans of America. Then, as deputy director of the Agent Orange Class Assistance Program, he helped oversee the distribution of more than $74 million to social service organizations nationwide.

The Agent Orange program taught Leaveck about grants, foundations and the IRS Form 990, knowledge he uses to question the California State University Stanislaus Foundation.

A scan through the foundation's 2008 tax documents, for instance, revealed to Leaveck and others that the foundation had declared $1.5 million in bad debts. No further details were provided.

"I would want to get to the bottom of that," Leaveck said.

Form 990 is used by nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations.

A spokeswoman for the university and foundation was not available to comment Friday. Previously, officials have cited a March 25 statement from foundation President Matt Swanson declaring the university is "proud and honored" to have Palin speak.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.