A Republican county sheriff at a college football game spots a group of African-American cheerleaders kneeling during the national anthem. Theirs is a provocative form of protest against police violence, made irresistible by the fact that Donald Trump has condemned it.
The sheriff pulls out his phone and dials up the university president. His friend, a state lawmaker who commands the purse strings for the entire university system, does the same.
The next week, there are no cheerleaders on the field when the band strikes up Francis Scott Key’s tune.
Via texts, the sheriff and the lawmaker high-five each other for pushing the university president’s buttons, for their own great display of patriotism, and for standing up to liberals “that hate the USA.”
The university president denies a cause-and-effect link between the angry sheriff and a cheer-less football field, but concedes the situation could have been handled better.
The Board of Regents initiates a “special review” of the situation. University faculty scorch the bark off their boss for bowing to “outsiders.” And suddenly, days after his heavily robed investiture as president of Kennesaw State University, friends of Sam Olens fear that his job could be in jeopardy.
Given this Reader’s Digest account, you can be excused for blaming Colin Kaepernick or Donald Trump. Either way, you’d be pointing your finger in the wrong direction.
The situation at KSU is a long-brewing clash between a local community’s historic sense of possession and the changing demographics within a public university – one with an exploding annual enrollment that has jumped by more than 20,000 since 2000.
Cobb County’s political elite has claimed ownership of KSU from its very beginning as a two-year junior college. In 1962, Carl Sanders was elected governor with a promise to put a public college within commuting distance of every person in the state.
Sanders promised one to Bartow County, but Cobb County snaked it away with its deft political clout. The purchase of land near an unfinished I-75 involved some funny business and several public officials, according to one history, but the statute of limitations long ago rendered the circumstances moot.
A decade later, another Democrat with gubernatorial ambitions, George Busbee, won the support of two Cobb County legislators by promising to make Kennesaw Junior College a four-year institution. State Reps. Joe Mack Wilson and A.L. Burruss both have buildings named after them on the KSU campus.
When Republicans took control of Cobb, the informal title to KSU came with it. But a Democrat-controlled Legislature poured little cash into an institution that Cobb Republicans eyed as an alternative to the liberal biases of Emory University, the University of Georgia and the like.
Newt Gingrich, a Marietta-based congressman on the verge of becoming speaker of the U.S. House, began teaching a course dubbed “Renewing American Civilization” at KSU in the fall of 1993. A public eruption, over the use of tax-deductible university foundation funds to broadcast the course around the country, sent the enterprise off-campus.
The Board of Regents quickly enacted a rule against elected officials teaching at public universities.
In 2002, Republican ascension to power in the state Capitol re-established a strong link between KSU finances and local GOP values. The ideological spats have continued.
In 2011, local Republican opposition sent a newly hired provost packing. His sin: His co-authorship of a 1998 academic paper that cited Communist philosopher Karl Marx.
Around that same time, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, became chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees all university system spending. Ehrhart got to the Capitol by beating Joe Mack Wilson, the lawmaker with his name on a KSU building.
In 2016, KSU hosted an art exhibit that focused on the AIDS epidemic and included pieces by some artists who suffered from the disease. Many of the pieces were rather graphic. Ehrhart condemned the show as “sickening,” and promised financial consequences if any similar events were held in the future.
Ehrhart is also the lawmaker who combined with Sheriff Neil Warren to move against the KSU cheerleaders this month.
And it is here that the law of unintended consequences applies.
Since Ehrhart has assumed a major role in university system spending, the Legislature has approved $56.6 million in new funding for buildings and infrastructure at KSU.
The campus has exploded. In 2000, the student population was under 14,000. Nearly 82 percent of the student body was white.
As of 2016, KSU had a far more diverse body of 35,000 students. Fifty-seven percent are white. The African-American population has more than doubled to 21.5 percent. (By comparison, the University of Georgia has roughly the same number of students. In 2016, only 8.3 percent were black.)
In other words, Cobb County itself may remain in GOP hands for the foreseeable future, but day by day, KSU is becoming a more liberal, liberal arts institution. Anthem-kneeling is merely one sign of the split that’s afoot.
Ironically, Sam Olens, the former Republican attorney general, was brought in as president to ease KSU’s transition to a major-league institution that emphasizes diversity. He’s the only Jewish president of a public university in Georgia. And as a Cobb County resident, locals were comfortable with him.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Ehrhart returned a call, and we discussed the KSU situation. The lawmaker said he thought Olens has done a fine job, and that he hopes the Board of Regents thinks so, too.
“It’s up to the Regents, but if I were asked I’d say, ‘No, I’d rather keep Sam. But I haven’t been asked,” he said.
Yet Ehrhart did mention that one of his top priorities when the Legislature convenes in January will be a much-needed $39 million classroom building at KSU.
He didn’t link the two. But there’s no doubt he could if he wanted to.
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