I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Sam Olens in his office at Kennesaw State University, where he was formally installed as the fourth president Thursday, Oct. 19, 13 days short of his first anniversary on the job.
We discussed his early life, accomplishments in college, entry into politics and new role as a university president.
Sam was born in Miami. His mother died when he was 5, and the rest of the family moved to New Jersey to live with an aunt and uncle. Sam’s father died a few months before Sam’s bar mitzvah. Sadly, the uncle died two years later.
While living with their relatives, the children learned the value and necessity of hard work, perseverance and sharing even modest resources with those less fortunate. The family ran a small bakery and regularly donated food to nonprofits and the needy.
Sam attended American University in Washington, then came to Atlanta to attend Emory Law School, where he earned a J.D.
Sam met his future wife, Lisa, while in law school, where she was also enrolled. They decided to stay in Atlanta when Lisa got a job with Georgia Power around 1984, and Sam joined a local law firm.
In the early 1990s he got involved in a neighborhood zoning dispute and eventually defeated the developer. He gradually became more involved in Cobb County activities, and in 1998 he was elected to the County Board of Commissioners. He later was elected chairman, a position he held until he decided to run for state attorney general in 2010.
Sam is the first Jewish Georgian elected attorney general and the first person to hold that office without having served in another statewide office.
In his political career he ran in six primary elections and won all six.
Sam said his years in public service were made possible and bearable by the love and support of his wife and children.
His accomplishments during nearly six years as attorney general include the following items of which he is especially proud:
- Led efforts to stem the epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
- Established the Georgia Legal Food Frenzy, which collected over 5 million pounds of food for state youths.
- Worked to strengthen the penalties for sex traffickers.
Early in his political life, Sam had a chance meeting with now-Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was friendly and gracious. That left a lasting impression on Sam.
The Georgia Board of Regents on Nov. 1, 2016, appointed Sam KSU’s fourth president since its founding in 1963.
The university is Georgia’s third-largest in terms of student population and is one of the 50 largest public universities in the country.
It has 13 colleges on two campuses, in Kennesaw and Marietta, offering more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees. It ranks in the top two in the state for engineering, biology and accounting.
Most KSU graduates remain in Georgia, benefiting the state economy.
Sam said his current position is the most challenging he has held.
He said a large number of students have limited financial resources and must hold part-time jobs, many come from difficult family circumstances, and, being young adults, they make poor, impulsive decisions.
Being a good role model is an important part of president’s job. Sam said he is in effect the “mayor of a small town” with the responsibility for safety, maintenance and personnel.
Thoughts From Sam
- Family, friends and community are essential in making anyone’s life journey meaningful.
- Whenever possible, exhaust all options to work with people of differing views. Conflict causes all to lose.
- Truly try to listen, comprehend and empathize with different points of view.
- Truth, honesty, hard work, confidence in the future, vision and sharing are important concepts in his success.
My Final Thought
Sam Olens is a wonderful human being and a dedicated public servant. We are blessed by his presence in our community. His primary motivation now is to do all he can to improve and enhance the lives of KSU’s students.
I believe that Sam will be a highly effective university president, will be a good role model for students, and will help enhance and transform many lives.