The state’s Board of Regents voted Wednesday to appoint Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens as president of Kennesaw State University, despite the objection of students and faculty who said the selection process was neither inclusive nor comprehensive.
As president, Olens will be faced with gaining the trust of skeptical students and faculty while helping the rapidly-growing KSU become a state and national player in fields such as business studies. Olens, who has no experience managing higher education, was the sole candidate interviewed. There was no national search, as the board initially intended.
State officials announced last week he was a candidate, and a Regents committee voted a day later to recommend the entire board consider Olens. The 19-member board selected him without objection after about 90 minutes of discussion.
Gov. Nathan Deal said Olens’ leadership, his levelheadedness and experience in Cobb County in roles such as county commission chairman make him an excellent choice to lead KSU. He will take the post Nov. 1.
“Sam’s role as attorney general also gives him the unique perspective and the skill set that is needed to help the university chart a new course in the future,” Deal said.
More than two dozen KSU students and staff attended the meeting, wearing signs such as “Do Not Silence US” and “National Search” on their shirts. Several students interrupted the beginning of the meeting.
“We demand a nationwide search for a qualified president,” one student stood up and shouted.
Nina Morgan, who’s been teaching at KSU for 21 years, said she was deeply disappointed with the vote. She and others talked about the rigorous selection process faculty typically face before being hired by KSU and said Olens should had gone through a similar process.
“The faculty will continue to stand against this decision,” she said exiting the meeting with five other KSU faculty members.
Critics argued his lack of experience as an administrator at a college raised serious concerns about his qualifications. Some on KSU’s campus worried Olens’ legal arguments as attorney general against LGBTQ-friendly policies, such as allowing transgender students to use restrooms that best fit their gender identity, suggest he’s out of step with the diverse student body.
Olens supporters cited his Cobb County roots as one reason he is qualified to lead the university, which has about 35,000 students, third-most in the state. They also say he’s a quick study who can raise money for the university, restore ethics in its administration after its former president resigned in June amid ethical concerns and build consensus among students and faculty.
“We feel Sam’s background running a very large and complicated entity like Cobb County will stand him in good stead,” University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby told reporters. “He’s a well-known entity in that community, highly-respected and he will be a very dynamic force, I think, in helping Kennesaw State move forward, particularly with the foundation’s support.”
Huckaby said a national search is expensive and is no guarantee of producing “a winner.”
KSU faculty senate president Humayum Zafar said he met with Olens last week to discuss faculty concerns. Zafar, who asked the board Wednesday to delay the selection process, said it will be up to Olens and faculty to find a way to work together.
Olens, 59, who is Jewish, was observing Yom Kippur on Wednesday, and did not attend. The attorney general’s office said he was unavailable for comment and has not talked to media since the process began. Olens has said he would work to keep tuition and student fees low if selected.
He is in line to receive a major salary increase. His fiscal year 2015 pay as attorney general was nearly $140,000. His predecessor’s base pay at KSU for fiscal year 2016 was about $363,000. A proposed contract has not drawn up yet, officials said.
His departure as the state’s elected attorney creates a domino effect in state government. Deal, who by state law is allowed to choose the next attorney general, announced less than an hour after the KSU vote he will select state Economic Development Commissioner Chris Carr, a former top aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, as Olens’ replacement.
The board also announced Wednesday that interim chancellor Steve Wrigley will become the full-time chancellor on Jan. 1. Huckaby is retiring at the end of the year.
Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this story