Sam Olens has begun his transition from elected official to academic administrator with a promise of open, honest communication and a commitment to mutual respect and tolerance.
He also has faced a campus protest and a promise of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against his hiring.
The University System of Georgia Board of Regents named Olens, who as attorney general has been Georgia’s highest-ranking elected Jewish politician for almost six years, the fourth president of Kennesaw State University while he observed Yom Kippur on Wednesday, Oct. 12.
“I tried my best to watch the activity once I got back from synagogue and not return calls, etc.,” Olens said in an interview with the AJT that will appear in the Oct. 21 issue. He said he and wife Lisa had about 50 people at their house to break the fast, so “it wasn’t until about 11 o’clock at night after we had cleaned up enough that we could go to bed, then I started looking at emails.”
He is resigning his elected position and assuming the presidency of the university with more than 33,000 students at campuses in Kennesaw and Marietta on Nov. 1. In an email that went out to members of the Kennesaw State community Thursday morning, Oct. 13, Olens called it “an institution that has helped transform our community and has earned a reputation as one of Georgia’s top universities.”
“I am excited to join the KSU community. The tremendous growth both in size and academic stature that this university has achieved in a relatively short amount of time speaks volumes about your dedication and commitment to excellence,” he wrote, adding that he has a passion for the university that is rooted in his belief in “the life-changing impact” of education.
He said the grit and determination of Kennesaw State students and the inclusive campus are consistent with his own values.
That letter did not stop about 70 people from staging a 10-minute silent protest outside the university administration building midday Thursday. Many were motivated by concerns for the LGBTQ community at Kennesaw State because Olens as attorney general waged court battles to defend Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage and block an Obama administration directive on transgender bathroom rights; an anti-Olens online petition before the regents’ decision focused on LGBTQ concerns.
But Olens said he has never publicly expressed a personal opinion on those issues.
“My job is to represent the state. That’s what I’ve done,” Olens told the AJT. “As far as being university president, there’s nothing more important in that capacity than the safety and protection of the students. The universities are there for the students. The point’s gonna be made loud and clear that my job is to do everything I can to ensure their success, and that doesn’t impinge on any type of political beliefs. That doesn’t come into the equation.”
Faculty members have also criticized the process that led to the hiring of Olens, whose career has consisted of the law and politics, not academia. The University System of Georgia did not conduct an official search or consider any other candidates after Daniel Papp resigned in May, effective June 30, after a decade as president.
Susan Raines, a professor of conflict management and the editor in chief of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, told WXIA-TV (11Alive) on Oct. 13 that she and others planned to file an EEOC complaint within a week because women and minorities were not allowed to apply for the job.
Raines said she tried to apply for the position.
The Kennesaw State reaction was far from entirely negative.
In his email to the KSU community, Olens said he plans to meet with individuals and groups for a thoughtful dialogue on both campuses in the coming weeks. “I want to share my initial thoughts about KSU’s priorities but more important want to hear from you, the members of the campus community, about your vision and what priorities we should emphasize going forward.”