When news broke a year ago that the Board of Regents intended to name Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to the presidency of Kennesaw State University, faculty and students expressed concern about a politician leading an institution of higher education. Olens had also been a former two-term chairman of Cobb County's board of commissioners.
Turns out those fears were justified.
Today, the AJC’s Meris Lutz reveals disturbing text exchanges between two conservative Cobb officials about the black KSU cheerleaders who chose to take a knee to highlight racism and injustice. Obtained through an Open Records request, the text messages suggest Olens caved to political pressure from the Cobb sheriff and a legislator known for using the state’s higher education system to score political points.
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart boasted in a series of text messages about pressuring the president of Kennesaw State University into keeping the school’s cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem in response to several kneeling in protest.
The text messages, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained under the Open Records Act, appear to contradict the official story by university President Sam Olens that the decision to delay the timing of the cheerleaders’ entrance onto the field for football games was made by the athletic department and had nothing to do with the protest.
“Legally I’m not sure they can stop or do anything to stop someone from this Un America ACT [sic],” Warren wrote to Ehrhart.
In a different message, he reported that he had talked to Olens and been “assured” that the cheerleaders would not be on field until after the national anthem, which once had been the practice but at some point changed.
“Thanks for always standing up too [sic] these liberal that hate the USA,” Warren wrote to Ehrhart, who chairs the committee that allocates funds to public universities.
In a follow-up message, Ehrhart seemed to confirm that Olens had caved to pressure: “He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend.”
In another text, Warren wrote, “Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!”
At a KSU rally Monday in support of the cheerleaders, speakers defended the right of students to protest. The 100 students and professors at the event called upon Olens to stand up for his campus and the peaceful exercise of civil liberties.
The cheerleaders issued a joint statement today: "We are deeply disheartened by the revelations revealed in these messages. We were exercising our 1st amendment rights in the most American way possible. We took a knee for a purpose and we continue to kneel for this cause. These text messages only leave us with more questions on how the university handled this situation. We would hope the university would defend its’ students from political leaders. To this day, President Olens has not met or requested a meeting with us. We are owed a meeting and to have this matter addressed publicly."
In his failure to defend the Kennesaw cheerleaders and in distancing himself from the decision to keep them off the field, Olens missed an opportunity to make all students on his campus feel respected and valued. He showed the good old boy system is alive and well at KSU, and that his decisions will be guided by politics rather than principles.
When Olens was being considered for the presidency, Humayun Zafar, president of the Faculty Senate, cited the faculty's role in Kennesaw State University's evolution from a junior college to a major research institution with more than 35,000 students.
"We hope whoever is the next president would recognize that and consult with us on matters," said Zafar. "Shared governance allows us to have potentially tough conversations with the administration, which then results in us in truly being united."
So much for shared governance and unity. What Olens has brought to KSU now is divisiveness and mistrust.