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Sam Olens is sole candidate to lead Kennesaw State University. Is this any way to choose a president?

In recommending state Attorney General Sam Olens as the next president of Kennesaw State University, Chancellor Hank Huckaby cited Olens' deep roots in Cobb.

"He knows Cobb County so well and he's been a very dedicated citizen of this community," Huckaby told the AJC.

I don't know what kind of college president Olens will be or whether he possesses the vision to build on Kennesaw's momentum and growth.

However, I question why Huckaby believes Olens is qualified because he lives in Cobb and loves the county. That might qualify Olens to lead a chamber of commerce in Cobb or a parade, but does it qualify him to lead a 35,000-student university?

Huckaby and the Board of Regents ought to offer a far more comprehensive argument for eschewing a national search in favor of a politician without any higher ed experience.

My AJC colleague Jim Galloway has an excellent piece about the politics of this move:

With Nathan Deal’s seal of approval, the Board of Regents – whose members are all appointed by the governor — will take up the matter next week.

Olens’ selection would put an end to his 17-year GOP electoral career, slamming the lid on all speculation of a 2018 run for governor. At the same time, it would give Olens, 59, permanent standing in his beloved Cobb County community, shorten his daily commute considerably, and produce a significant increase in his take-home pay.

The attorney general’s current salary is almost $140,000 per annum. The 2016 pay package for Dan Papp, whom Olens would replace, was $362,740.

Olens continues to be a controversial choice among some faculty and students, including professor Leonard Witt. In 2008, Witt was named an Eminent Scholar by the Board of Regents and was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for Kennesaw State University.

In this piece, Witt shares his concerns about the lack of a national search.

By Leonard Witt

University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby has made it official, Sam Olens will be the only candidate brought before the Board of Regents for a vote. No women nor minorities need apply.

Huckaby’s decision is wrong on many levels, and now it’s up to the Regents itself to demand a national search, composed of an impartial, highly regarded search committee that cannot be impinged for its decision. It’s the right thing to do for all of Georgia’s women and minorities.

The Olens vote is scheduled for Oct. 12.  If they vote in Sam Olens, the BOR which is 90 percent white and 90 percent male, will flaunt the power of white male privilege—and political cronyism—thus leaving out all the well qualified women, minorities and any other protected groups who have labored long in the Georgia system of higher learning and who have earned and deserve a chance to apply for this important and esteemed job.

The BOR consists of 15 white males, two white women, one African-American male and one Asian-Indian male.

Our first instinct is to ask why the two people of color and two white women don’t speak up but that is wrong. The onus is on the 15 white males to do the right things to honor their wives, daughters, granddaughters, sisters and all the thousands of women, minorities and yes, the other white males, who work in the USG, but who are being denied a chance to be selected for this important position. This is a university system with more than 300,000 students of which more than 50 percent are females and almost 50 percent are people of color.

If this secretive, mostly white and male fraternity, votes for a lone white male candidate they will be on the wrong side of history – in a state that has been on the wrong side so often before.  Here perhaps is the most apropos example. It’s 1941, Eugene Talmadge is the hateful, racist governor of Georgia. He got word that a university dean and a president favored integration. He tells the BOR to fire them, they refuse. He reshuffles BOR members and then has these new cronies fire the president and dean. There is one problem, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges accrediting body jumps in and pulls the accreditation of 10 Georgia institutions of higher learning. Their diplomas are worth nothing. The voters take notice and kick Talmadge out of office.

Now turn the clock forward to 1981, Betty Siegel is among multiple candidates vying to be the new president of KSU. Students, faculty, alumni, donors and community members are all in the interviewing mix. Betty Siegel is the chosen candidate. She serves KSU for 25 years and is one of the most esteemed women university presidents in the world. She moves KSU, which could have been a backwater, old-boy run school, into a world-class institution. She is respected across the country and around the worldwide. Of course, now that it is a worldwide connected school it no longer is just the provenance of Cobb County or the state of Georgia. Too many people from all over the world as faculty, students, alumni, donors, cooperating academic partners and corporations now have a vested interest in Kennesaw State University.

With that comes responsibility to ensure all its diverse stakeholders are treated as equals. A secret cabal that is 90 percent male and 90 percent white, needs to understand the hurt its actions do to all aspiring women and minorities. BOR members you can demonstrate human decency; tell Chancellor Huckaby you want to think this out, to have time to hear from the women and minorities who were skipped over and thus can no longer trust this fixed, white-male dominated system—nor should they if the BOR unilaterally picks yet another white male crony all behind closed doors.

The Regents have choices: one that affirms white privilege in an underhanded way the despicable Eugene Talmadge would have fully endorsed or one that reaffirms the work of Betty Siegel and the power of an open search that lets every qualified man and woman have a shot at being the next KSU president in a process based on their merits and not on political machinations. Pick your place in history, the world is watching.


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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.