Pressure on Olens to leave KSU

5:50 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 Education
Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens speaks during the investiture ceremony at KSU on October 19, 2017. (Rebecca Breyer)

Pressure is being put, publicly and privately, on Sam Olens to leave his job as president of Kennesaw State University.

Olens took the job a year ago amid complaints by some that he got it through connections rather than qualifications, and he has faced criticism in recent weeks from some students, faculty, community leaders and free-speech advocates for several miscues, particularly his handling of a student protest.

Olens will be looking for another high-profile position in the next few weeks, according to an elected official and a senior government official with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday on the condition of anonymity because it is a personnel matter.

One official described it as a mutual agreement because “it’s not a good fit.” Another official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the AJC Wednesday that state Board of Regents members were “disappointed” by a recent state review that found fault in Olens’ response to the student protest. The official, though, was unaware of any effort by Regents to remove Olens. The board’s next meeting is Tuesday. State officials say the frustration also involves struggles to communicate and coordinate with members and staffers of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system.

Olens and University System of Georgia administrators declined comment, spokesmen said.

The Cobb County Southern Christian Leadership Conference talked about its displeasure with Olens on Wednesday. It held a news conference on the main KSU campus demanding he resign. Its leaders cited the state findings.

Olens “has proven to be unfit to lead this institution,” SCLC chapter president Ben Williams told reporters.

The students also held a sit-in on the campus green, where Olens installation celebration was simultaneously taking place.

Olens is paid $435,832 in salary and benefits, the fifth-highest of any president in the university system. The Board of Regents typically reviews each president’s job performance before the end of the spring semester. He received a 1.5 percent increase in his base pay in May.

Olens, a former chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, resigned as the state’s Attorney General in November 2016 to take the job at KSU, one of the nation’s fastest-growing universities, which has an enrollment of about 35,000 students. That move, sanctioned by Gov. Nathan Deal, allowed Deal to appoint his protégé Chris Carr as Georgia’s top attorney.

Critics cited Olens’ political ties and lack of administrative experience on any college campus, and complained that he was the only candidate for the job. Supporters endorsed the hire, in part, because of those relationships and his reputation as a consensus builder.

Olens was reprimanded three weeks ago in a special state review the Board of Regents ordered, for failing to follow official guidance in dealing with five African-American cheerleaders who knelt during the national anthem at a Sept. 30 football game in protest, they said, of racism and inequality.

The inquiry into Olens’ actions was sparked by an AJC report that Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, boasted of having forced Olens to stop the young women from kneeling on the field.

“He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice,” Ehrhart wrote to Warren.

The Board of Regents found Olens ignored explicit instructions not to interfere with student athletes who take a knee during the anthem, and affirmed the gesture as an act of free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

KSU has since reversed course, allowing cheerleaders onto the field for the anthem once more. But the fallout has placed more pressure on an already strained relationship between Olens and some faculty and students. The disputes include Olens’ decision to remove the phrase “social justice” from some faculty job descriptions and plans to end its Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality degree, two years after receiving the largest single donor gift in the university’s history for the program.

Faculty members have asked Olens to answer an array of written questions about the protest and other campus issues. They also want a forum to discuss their concerns. Olens and his staff are working on responses, a faculty member told the AJC Wednesday.

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