Former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens resigned as the president of Kennesaw State University on Thursday, Dec. 14.
“I have decided that new leadership will be required for KSU to fully realize its potential. Accordingly, I have advised the Chancellor and the Board of Regents of my intention to step down as the President of Kennesaw State University, effective on February 15, 2018,” Olens wrote in a statement emailed to the university community.
The resignation comes just after the completion of the fall semester and two days after a meeting of the University System of Georgia board of regents, from which Olens had faced criticism recently.
The announcement ends a brief, controversial foray into academia for the lawyer who rose to unprecedented heights for a Jewish politician in Georgia. Olens is giving up what he told the AJT this fall is the most challenging job he has held.
The University System of Georgia named Provost Ken Harmon the interim Kennesaw State president and announced a national search for a permanent president. The search committee will include representatives of faculty, staff, students and alumni.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had reported Dec. 6 that Olens was expected to resign within weeks and take another “high-profile position.” Olens did not say Dec. 14 what he will do next.
Having taken the job Nov. 1, 2016, amid criticism over his previous political positions and lack of academic experience, Olens ran into a fresh controversy by the time he was installed this October. After five cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem before a Kennesaw State football game, Olens approved a change in the pregame program that kept the cheerleaders off the field until after the anthem.
Two powerful fellow Cobb County Republicans, Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, had sent Olens text messages demanding that the university president do something to stop the anthem protest.
Although Olens denied a connection between the pregame change and those messages, the University System of Georgia issued a report criticizing KSU’s handling of the cheerleader protests despite guidance from the board of regents to be careful and respect students’ First Amendment rights.
In response to that report, the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called Dec. 6 for Olens to resign.
The criticism and pressure on him continued even after the university let the cheerleaders take the field for the anthem again in November and even though he had been a strong proponent of free-speech rights and government transparency throughout his political career.
A member of Congregation Etz Chaim, Olens is the only Jewish candidate in a partisan election to win statewide office, and the former chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners did it twice: earning the attorney general’s job in 2010, then gaining re-election in 2014.
Amid speculation that he would run to become Georgia’s first Jewish governor in 2018, after Gov. Nathan Deal’s two terms, Olens instead resigned from his elected position to take the Kennesaw State post Nov. 1, 2016. The KSU job became vacant June 30, 2016, after Daniel Papp resigned amid reports of financial improprieties, and Olens was seen by supporters as someone with deep ties to Cobb County and a sterling reputation who could clear out any whiff of scandal.
But Olens, who had no experience as a college administrator, was hired without any other candidates being considered. His lack of academic credentials angered members of the faculty, and some students protested his hiring because of legal actions he undertook as attorney general against same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.
“The role of the president is now very different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. I think they’ll get to know me; I’ll get to know them,” Olens told the AJT in October 2016, shortly after his hiring was announced the day after Yom Kippur. “What folks say in the heat of passion isn’t what you want to start a relationship with, so we’re going to work constructively.”
Before Papp resigned, he said, he had been considering a move into the university world after his political career instead of practicing law again. He said he was not going to run for governor.
“I think over the last few years it’s a fair statement to say that I find politics more and more distasteful. The campaigns are more and more based on hyperpartisanship and not substance,” he said.
In his resignation statement Dec. 14, Olens said he faced challenges from the start at Kennesaw, which was in the process of integrating the former Southern Polytechnic State University into KSU as its new Marietta campus in addition to dealing with financial controversies.
“I have worked tirelessly to lead this institution to greater heights, with student success being my number one priority,” Olens said. “More than most, I can relate to the challenges many of our students have to overcome to successfully attend and complete college. This personal history instilled in me a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge that has guided my actions as President.”
He said the university has made progress in providing need-based scholarships, supporting at-risk students, improving efficiency, overhauling the admissions process and consolidating the two campuses.
Olens said he will miss working for the students but sees the change to a new president as best for the university.
“Sam is a truly dedicated public servant to the state of Georgia and has contributed much of his life for the betterment of Georgians,” University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley said. “I thank Sam for his service to Kennesaw State University and the University System of Georgia.”
Olens’ Full Statement
First, let me take this opportunity to again congratulate all of the 2017 graduates whom the University has honored this week. We are proud of your accomplishments and the efforts undertaken by all of our faculty and staff to reach this milestone.
As many of you know, when I was selected as Kennesaw State University’s President in October of 2016, I was a non-traditional candidate. I believe I was appointed because of my prior service as Georgia’s Attorney General, my deep ties to Cobb County and my passionate belief in the importance of higher education.
Challenges to the institution were evident as I began my tenure and these trials, coupled with internal trepidations, made for a very difficult start. I have worked tirelessly to lead this institution to greater heights, with student success being my number one priority. More than most, I can relate to the challenges many of our students have to overcome to successfully attend and complete college. This personal history instilled in me a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge that has guided my actions as President.
With the help of an excellent leadership team and the arduous work of the entire KSU family, we have made great strides over the last year toward taking Kennesaw State to the next level of academic success. The University is operating more efficiently and effectively, and the relationship with the Foundation is strong. We have focused on providing need-based scholarships for our students and supportive, innovative programs to help at-risk students achieve their dreams of obtaining a college degree. We have created a new admissions model that will better serve our students and allow us to strategically plan for future growth. We have also made substantial progress in fully consolidating two campuses into a single University community.
Even with these successes, I have decided that new leadership will be required for KSU to fully realize its potential. Accordingly, I have advised the Chancellor and the Board of Regents of my intention to step down as the President of Kennesaw State University, effective on February 15, 2018.
While I view this transition as the best course of action for the University, I do so with the realization that I will miss working on behalf of the students at KSU who have the potential to do remarkable things and serve as tomorrow’s leaders.
My optimism and expectations for the University are high, and I wish all success for the future to our students, faculty, and staff.