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Sam Olens out at KSU after failing to stand up for rights of cheerleaders who kneeled

The appointment of Sam Olens to the presidency of Kennesaw State University last year was political, and it was politics that led to his resignation today.

The former Cobb commission chair and state attorney general will leave the post on Feb 15.  Ken Harmon, provost and vice president for academic affairs, will serve as interim during the search for Olens' replacement.

Olens made a serious mistake -- apparently a fatal one -- this fall when he bowed to political pressures after KSU cheerleaders took a knee during a Sept 30 football game. After five cheerleaders knelt, the squad was yanked from the field during the national anthem.

As an attorney and a free speech advocate, Olens was well aware of the protections students at public colleges have under the law.  Instead, he capitulated to the outrage expressed by state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs,  and Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren. He denied the pair influenced the KSU policy decision, but even the Regents didn't buy it.

As the AJC reported:

Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens did not follow state guidance when the university made a change that kept cheerleaders from kneeling on the football field during the national anthem, a report released Tuesday concluded.

University System of Georgia officials told Olens and the presidents of its public universities during a two-day October meeting that taking a knee during the anthem is free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution and should not be interfered with, unless it causes a disruption. Any changes by a college should be discussed with the USG.

The Saturday after that meeting, KSU implemented a change that kept its cheerleaders in its stadium tunnel before the anthem. That was a week after five cheerleaders had first taken a knee on the field. Olens did not discuss the change with USG officials, who learned about it through an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

"President Olens was aware of the proposed change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change, " the report said. "President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week."

The report also questions KSU's explanation that the change to the program before football games was unrelated to the kneel-down, citing the timing of the change.

Olens was recommended for the KSU presidency by the governor, but his selection sparked protests by some faculty and students who cited Olens' lack of higher ed experience and his defense, as attorney general, of a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Olens told the AJC, "As attorney general, my job was to follow the law. It wasn't to follow the laws that I liked, and not follow the laws I disliked."

The AJC reported earlier this month that sources said Olens would look for another high-profile position in the next few weeks. His departure from KSU was cast as a mutual agreement because "it's not a good fit."

The AJC also reported:  "Another official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the AJC that state Board of Regents members were 'disappointed' by a recent state review that found fault in Olens' response to the student protest. "

Here is the official University System of Georgia statement on Olens' departure:

Today, Kennesaw State University (KSU) President Sam Olens has announced he will step down as president effective Feb. 15, 2018. Olens has served as president since Nov. 1, 2016.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley recognized Olens’ service to Kennesaw State University saying, “Sam is a truly dedicated public servant to the State of Georgia and has contributed much of his life for the betterment of Georgians. I thank Sam for his service to Kennesaw State University and the University System of Georgia. On behalf of the University System, we wish Sam and his family the very best.”

In preparation for the transition, Wrigley has named Dr. Ken Harmon interim president of Kennesaw State University. Harmon currently serves as provost and vice president for academic affairs for the institution. Prior to this role, Harmon served as dean of KSU’s Coles College of Business and has been at KSU since 2006.

“With more than a decade of experience in leadership roles at KSU, Dr. Harmon will ensure a smooth transition,” said Wrigley. “We appreciate Dr. Harmon stepping forward to serve KSU’s students, faculty and staff.”

Meanwhile, the University System will immediately begin a national search for the next president of Kennesaw State University. A campus-based presidential search committee will be formed and announced. Members of the committee will include representatives from KSU faculty, staff, the student body, alumni and KSU’s local community and will be appointed by current Board of Regents Chairman C. Thomas Hopkins, Jr., MD, Chairman-elect James M. Hull and Chancellor Wrigley. Nominations for the search committee should be submitted to the Board of Regents.

The campus-based presidential search committee will be responsible for the search and screening of candidates. Since the authority to name a president resides with the chancellor and the board, a Regents’ Special Committee will also be formed and comprised of Board of Regents members. At the conclusion of the campus committee’s work, the campus committee will forward for consideration to the Regents’ Special Committee the credentials of three to five unranked candidates.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.