After the University System of Georgia Board of Regents announced Wednesday, Oct. 12, that Sam Olens will take the position of Kennesaw State University president Nov. 1, the outgoing attorney general answered questions from the AJT about his new job, the post he’s leaving behind, and concerns at KSU among faculty about the absence of a national candidate search and Olens’ lack of academic experience and among students about the maintenance of an LGBTQ-friendly environment.
AJT: First off, how are you holding up? Too exhausted to fast?
Olens: I’m fine. When you’re the state’s lawyer, it’s always busy. It’s just busy. That’s just the process.
AJT: Were you able to observe Yom Kippur?
Olens: Actually, yes, the letter that was submitted to the students and faculty didn’t go out until Thursday at 8 a.m. because I intentionally did not want that to go out on Yom Kippur. I tried my best to watch the activity once I got back from synagogue and not return calls, etc.
AJT: How or when did you decide to pursue this?
Olens: So prior to this position opening, I had already had in the back of my mind to go into academia rather than a private law firm after the political career. So that was already being considered. When the opening arose with Dr. (Dan) Papp, it immediately caught my attention. I know Dr. Papp; he’s a very nice man. I’ve known him for many years.
A lot of the Cobb County community leaders had started reaching out to me. At the same time, I was familiar with some unfortunate incidents that had occurred at the campus — in the role of being the state’s lawyer. There were some files that were sent over to us from the chancellor’s office, so I’m familiar with allegations of impropriety of individuals at the university and the need for some changes.
Kennesaw State has grown exponentially in a very short period of time. It now has over 34,000 students. Quite possibly, in the next two years, it will be the second-largest institution in the state, with Georgia State being No. 1. UGA would be No. 3. With that exponential growth comes a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities, so I look forward to working with the leadership to make a lot of the necessary improvements and to really turn what’s already an excellent institution into an even better institution.
AJT: How long ago exactly did you begin to consider academia?
Olens: Oh, I’d say probably five years. I didn’t know where or in what capacity. I didn’t know whether it meant to potentially be a dean at a law school or other opportunities, but clearly I was thinking about it.
AJT: What inspired that desire? Anything in particular?
Olens: A love of learning. I always told my kids, “You know, Dad brings the paper home every night. Dad’s on the computer every night,” if I weren’t at a public meeting, if I weren’t at a nonprofit event, etc. So I would always tell my kids that learning is a lifelong process. It’s not just a function that you have homework in K through 12 or in college. Your job is to constantly learn. The point that you think you know everything is the point that you fail. As county commissioner and chairman, I had to learn a whole lot about water and waste water and transportation that I certainly hadn’t thought about before.
That served me well in this position because we represent GDOT; we represent numerous agencies in that regard. A third of the workforce in Cobb County is public safety. Well, now I have the honor to represent GBI, State Patrol and others. Those are all experiences that assist. For instance, it’s just one example, Clery (the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act) that deals with public safety of the students and faculty on campus — crimes or sexual assaults. So I’m very keen to what that act requires and what needs to happen. In this position, I’m very familiar with the necessity to comply with Title IX, and that of course is a big issue at any university.
There are parts of this job that are very familiar to me. I consider maybe next fall teaching a class or co-teaching a class, either with regard to local government or constitutional law in the poli-sci department. I think that could be fun, another way to meet students. They’re gonna see plenty of me anyway. In the county we learned what’s called “walk the halls,” where you talk to all the employees. They need to see you and know that you care. I do the same thing here; we’re in several buildings. So I think that the students will see me in the cafeteria and in the various buildings, what’s going on at both the Marietta campus and the Kennesaw campus.
AJT: Was it a difficult choice to give up the position of attorney general halfway through the term?
Olens: No. 1, I love the job. The governor and the AG, they represent the state in litigation, etc., so it’s a great, great job. The lawyers here are fantastic. I love the lawyers that I get to work with. I’m vice president of the National Association of Attorneys General, so at the end of this term I would have been president. That would have been a great opportunity to represent all of the 56 or 57 attorneys general. There’s the 50 states, D.C., the Virgin Islands, Guam. The decision to leave was not any displeasure with the current job. It was an opportunity where openings for president don’t happen all the time, and when you have the opportunity, let alone one at an institution you’re very familiar with, that’s important to take advantage of.
AJT: Does this rule out a future run for governor?
Olens: I frankly was not intending to run for governor before this.
It’s a great honor and opportunity. 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. I’m very interested in policy. I’m not very interested in how far right or how far left people can go. When I spoke at the JBC, I was very nonpartisan because I think that as the state’s lawyer, unlike other constitutional officers, I have an obligation to be so. I think, look, I’ve had a great opportunity. I’ve been in public service roughly 18 years, but the level of discourse in the political discussion now is beyond anything I want to be a part of.
For instance, our governor has done an excellent job. The work that he has done in criminal justice reform is amazing and will serve the state very, very well and will serve as a model. Unlike the norm, where attorneys general and governors don’t get along most of the time, irrespective of party affiliation, even from the same parties, we’ve had a very healthy rapport. We’ve worked very well together. I think more and more, though, the divisiveness is unwelcome.
AJT: How have you dealt with the controversy surrounding your appointment?
Olens: Well, I’ve met with numerous folks already. I’m scheduling some meetings. I think it’s very important for folks to meet with me, for folks to talk with me. I’m the state’s lawyer; it’s my job to defend the state. As the university president, my job is to do the best I can for the university; it’s a very different position. When the state is sued, I have an obligation to defend the state. That’s what I did. If I had it over again, I would do the same thing. That’s my job; that’s the oath of office.
I think unfortunately some groups did their best to try and scare students rather than create a fair process. I need to move forward and to meet with the groups (Kennesaw Pride Alliance, Executive of the Student Government Association) and assure them that the two positions are totally different. My interests at Kennesaw State are consistent with their interests. I think it’s about making yourself accessible.
AJT: Would you like to further respond to those in the faculty concerned about your lack of experience in education?
Olens: It’s my understanding that over the last decade that there have been many “nontraditional” university presidents. In fact, there has been a significant percentage of those nontraditional university presidents having had a law career beforehand. Traditionally, the role of the university president has been academic success. Now, in addition to academic success, there’s fundraising, there’s compliance with the budget, there’s compliance with federal acts (such as the Clery Act and Title IX).
There are efforts to frankly improve the growth for the students and the faculty: students with regard to scholarships and graduation rates; faculty with regards to more dollars for research, more ability to have them succeed from that financial perspective. So 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. 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.
I will tell you that numerous deans have emailed me saying that they know me, that they’ve worked with me over X number of years and that they look forward to working with me. I’ve had vice presidents at the institution who have done the same. Numerous faculty members have done the same. You hear the vocal minority, but you don’t hear the majority. That’s not to say I’d do anything other than to assuage the concerns of the vocal minority. And I will.
AJT: Could you address those who are concerned that your leadership of KSU would negatively affect LGBT students?
Olens: As I said before, my job is to represent the state. That’s what I’ve done. 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.
AJT: So would you say that it’s unfounded for, say, trans students to feel as if they’re not safe?
Olens: Absolutely. There’s nothing I’m going to do on that campus that’s going to infringe on their beliefs, on their rights, on their comfort. I’ve never expressed my personal opinions in any of these areas. The job of the university president is totally different.
AJT: What have responses from the Jewish community been like?
Olens: Well, I’ve got a lot of friends there. I’m a part of it. Look, there was an effort in this process to make me anti-everything. I mean, I saw emails that said, “He’s Jewish, that means he’s anti-Muslim.” I actually reached out to a friend of mine who is a lay leader at one of the mosques in Atlanta. I said, “Reach out to the Muslim student group and tell them what you know of me.” I have worked with the Muslim community in this state for many years. I have worked with the ISB (Islamic Speakers Bureau). I’ve worked with several of the mosques. I know several of the imams. I choose to be inclusive. I choose to be supportive. I’ve been to the Roswell mosque within the last couple months. Am I going to have a discussion with them about Israeli politics or Middle Eastern politics? Absolutely not. But similar to the ADL, am I going to defend their right to the First Amendment? Am I going to defend their right to be protected and to be secure? Absolutely. That’s the beauty of our country.
AJT: Do you plan to continue any involvement in previous projects, such as campaigning for Amendment 2 (Penalties for Sex Crimes to Fund Services for Sexually Exploited Children)?
Olens: Clearly, I still have scheduled meetings; I have talks. You know, I’ve had three big initiatives as AG: the food bank program, the sex trafficking program and the prescription drug abuse program. When I leave office, I’m not going to leave these areas. I plan on continuing to support any and all efforts to reduce sex trafficking. I think Channel 2 is actually doing a series in about two weeks, and I previously was interviewed for that series. It is astounding to me how many young children are sold throughout our state every night. The biggest thing we can do, even more important than passing new legislation, is getting the point across that the buyers will spend many years in jail. When the middle-aged male finds out that his friend, his colleague at work or whatever, was given 10 years in jail for having sex with a 12-year-old, that sends the message. The old days where you disregarded the acts of the buyer and only went after the seller are long gone.
For instance, we had a training at Emory Law School for judges because the judges really need to understand that we can’t solve the problem without going after demand. That’s got to be an essential part of this scenario. The beauty of constitutional Amendment 2 is it gives the resources to assist the victims. So, for instance, now when I have a DA in South Georgia say, “I have a victim, there’s no place in South Georgia to assist the victim,” that’s unacceptable. If Amendment 2 is passed (Nov. 8), there will be institutions throughout the state to assist these victims. That’s paramount because too many of them are committing suicide or overdosing, and we’ve got to do what we can as a society for the most vulnerable to protect them.