By the time we break our fasts at the end of Yom Kippur, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens will likely have been named the next president of Kennesaw State University by the regents of the University System of Georgia. But the official board vote isn’t likely to silence the protests of some faculty, students and alumni.
Professors are unhappy that Olens was picked without a national search befitting a research university on the rise. They’re also less than pleased that the job is going to someone who has made his career outside the ivory towers of academia.
Thousands of LGBTQ students and alumni and their allies, meanwhile, have signed a petition and staged protests because they have decided that Olens is their enemy and is a threat to create a hostile environment at the university’s two Cobb County campuses.
That concern has arisen largely because as attorney general Olens defended Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage and challenged the Obama administration’s directive on transgender bathrooms. The wording of Olens’ legal briefs seems innocuous to many but sets off trigger warnings for those most affected but the outcome of those cases.
We’re in no position to lecture any minority community about how to respond to perceived threats, and we have no special insight into Olens’ views toward LGBTQ people.
But on the matter of same-sex marriage, he was doing the job for which he was elected when he defended the state law, and he made sure that the state was ready to comply as soon as the Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional.
The transgender bathroom issue is more complicated, both because of the question of federal power — the basis of the legal action Olens joined on Georgia’s behalf — and because, unlike marriage, other people are affected by who uses a public bathroom.
Regardless of whether Olens was right in the bathroom case, we find no reason in his actions or his statements to believe that he is prejudiced against anyone or would create a dangerous environment.
University president is the rare job that defies a standard definition. Not only do the requirements vary from school to school, but the same university could have very different needs from president to president.
Yeshiva University, for example, has narrowed its presidential search to a scholar with some administrative experience, Rabbi Ari Berman. Unfortunately, YU is in a financial mess and perhaps more than anything needs someone who can clean up the books (Oglethorpe’s Lawrence Schall, who isn’t a rabbi but is Jewish, might have fit that bill).
Kennesaw State has gone through a period of dramatic growth in student body, academic mission, profile and reputation the past decade. It also has suffered growing pains as a lack of procedures has led to financial improprieties among senior administrators.
Like Yeshiva, KSU doesn’t need someone to boost its academics right now. It needs someone who can clean up the university’s image and establish the systems and staff structure necessary to run a school with more than 33,000 students.
Olens has overseen a public operation much larger than Kennesaw State as the elected head of the Cobb County government. He’s an expert at keeping things running smoothly in an atmosphere of openness and cooperation, and he has run a clean ship as Cobb chairman and as Georgia attorney general.
There’s every reason to think he’ll enhance KSU’s reputation as a well-run, clean operation, which should help faculty pursuing grants and should boost the value of a Kennesaw degree. We hope his critics will give him a chance.