Olens’ KSU bid: Qualifications or politics?

Protesters gather on Oct. 3 on The Green in front of Kennesaw Hall to protest the recent proposal to consider Attorney General Sam Olens as KSU’s next president. (AJC/Cory Hancock)

Credit: Cory Hancock

caption arrowCaption
Protesters gather on Oct. 3 on The Green in front of Kennesaw Hall to protest the recent proposal to consider Attorney General Sam Olens as KSU’s next president. (AJC/Cory Hancock)

Credit: Cory Hancock

Credit: Cory Hancock

Campaign donations a conflict?

These four members of the Board of Regents, or their relatives and related businesses, made contributions to one or both of Sam Olens’ campaigns for Georgia Attorney General. The leader of an ethics watchdog group says the contributions pose potential conflicts of interest. The Regents are to vote Wednesday on making Olens the next president of Kennesaw State University.

Rusty Griffin Jr.

Donald Leebern Jr.

Kessel Stelling Jr.

Richard L. Tucker

About Kennesaw State University

Estimated Fall 2016 enrollment: 35,011

Endowment: $36.7 million

Fall 2015 acceptance rate: 58.5 percent

Part-time student enrollment: 27.9 percent

Source: Kennesaw State University

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens rose from neighborhood activist to Cobb County commission chairman to the state’s top lawyer by building strong political relationships, but those relationships are one point of contention over his potential appointment as president of Kennesaw State University.

For example, four of the 19 state Board of Regents members, or their relatives and related businesses, contributed $31,200 to Olens’ two campaigns for attorney general, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

The whiff of politics causes many KSU students and faculty to question whether ambition and connections have more to do with his proposed appointment than his qualifications. Olens has no experience managing a university and has alienated some there with stances he took as attorney general. But political experience, bridge-building skills and his longstanding Cobb County ties can also serve Olens well as university president, his supporters say.

The Regents are scheduled Wednesday to vote on Olens. If approved, Olens will lead a fast-growing school of 35,000 students aiming to become a leader in business, engineering and teaching studies.

The university will need a president who can work well with students and faculty, raise money and manage the many administrative duties such as following the increasing number of federal rules on matters from labor law to campus sexual assaults.

“It’s a different breed of politics. It’s not as mean and nasty and you don’t have people paid to trash you,” said former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, now president of Young Harris College. “Politics is how you work with people to get things done … A president has to work with faculty and students or it’s going to be a lopsided and ineffective organization.”

Like Olens, she had no expertise managing a college or university. Cox said teaching a semester at the University of Georgia helped her, along with mentoring from other college presidents.

Olens has declined interviews since he was named the sole candidate last week. He noted in a three-page letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby the size of Cobb County's workforce when he was chairman, and the budget, which was larger than KSU's.

“In my view,” he wrote, “the next president should focus on ensuring KSU’s affordability, comprehensively evaluating the budget to allocate resources more effectively and improving graduation rates so that more KSU can use their skills and education to better our communities.”

Consensus builder

Olens supporters including Huckaby say his years in Cobb government and his six-year tenure as Atlanta Regional Commission chairman prepared him to lead KSU, in northwest Cobb. They say his connections at the state Capitol and with Republicans nationally (he and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have campaigned for each other) will help with fundraising.

Friends and foes describe Olens, 59, as a hard-worker, blunt, headstrong, low-key with a dry wit, a dealmaker. Consensus-builder is the most frequent term politicos use about him.

He helped persuade the county’s fiscally conservative voters to pass a sales tax for road improvements and choreographed a $57 million chunk of the financing for the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre by tapping hotel/motel taxes. Critics said Olens was frequently insensitive to minority residents. They complained, for example, that county police ran criminal background checks on code violators, frequently Hispanic men in crowded homes.

The view of Olens as a consensus-builder grew during his 2004-2009 tenure as chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. He was known for supporting a regional approach on tough issues — sometimes, some griped, at Cobb’s expense.

Olens was demure about his future in politics at the time. “I think people have greater aspirations for me than I have for myself,” he said in a 2004 AJC profile.

Olens had aspirations, though. He flirted with a run for governor in 2010 before setting his sights on attorney general that year and winning.

Olens has focused on protecting consumers and prosecuting sex trafficking. He hired a former Cobb County prosecutor in 2013 to take over a special task force to prosecute Medicare and Medicaid fraud, making Georgia a national leader in recovering lost state and federal dollars. He has also prosecuted college officials accused of stealing school funds.

He’s played nice with the region’s Democratic leaders but battled the Obama administration on several court rulings and policies. For example, Georgia joined 11 other states in a lawsuit against the directive that public schools let transgender students use restrooms that fit their gender identity.

“Parents, teachers, and local communities have the right to determine the best way to address these issues without the heavy hand of the federal government threatening to take away billions of dollars of funding,” Olens said.

Olens took a hit from some in his own party when he prosecuted powerful state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, in 2013 on charges that he improperly sought expense reimbursement he didn’t deserve. Balfour was acquitted on all charges.

Olens surrogates point to his work protecting and expanding the Georgia open-records laws. Twice, he came to the defense of video journalist Nydia Tisdale, whom Cumming city officials removed while she recorded a council meeting.

He has come under fire, though, for what some say were ethics lapses by his office. A Fulton County judge ordered Olens' office to pay a $10,000 fine in 2014 for not turning over key records in a whistleblower lawsuit.

Ethics in the KSU administration will draw scrutiny. Dan Papp retired as president in June, and four other administrators were fired after an audit exposed violations of ethics policies.

Olens’ candidacy has caused a stir on campus. The student newspaper devoted three pages in a recent edition to a protest of it and student comments about whether he’s the best fit.

Since 2010, KSU’s enrollment has risen from nearly 29,000 to about 35,000, making it the third-largest University System school. Most students commute from the northern end of metro Atlanta.

The lone finalist

Part of the campus criticism stems from Olens being the sole candidate. Additionally, some students dislike that as attorney general he defended a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. KSU has a reputation as a LGBT-inclusive school.

“Many people are qualified (to be president) and handpicking someone is not fair,” said Auburn Eastall, 19, a sophomore. “If (Olens) still stacks up (after a search process), then that’s fair.”

Hiring college presidents often involves a search committee and list of finalists, but some college presidents, such as Paul Jones at Fort Valley State University and Margaret Venable at Dalton State College, have been chosen without a standard search process.

Heath Garrett, a friend and former Olens political strategist, said Olens’ experiences as a Jewish elected official in the largely Christian South have made him sensitive to discrimination. “Any suggestion that Sam Olens is anything but tolerant is a misunderstanding of Sam as a public servant and as a person,” Garrett said.

State law allows Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, to appoint a replacement for Olens if he resigns in the final 27 months of his term. As of mid-October, Olens, has 27 months remaining.

The four Regents who’ve donated to Olens did not respond to a request for comment late last week.

While the $31,200 campaign contributions are less than 1 percent of the nearly $3.8 million Olens raised, one government ethics watchdog says the donations raise potential conflicts of interest that should discourage those board members from voting on Olens.

“For sake of process, those who’ve supported him should step back,” said William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. Olens’ “appointment loses a lot of credibility, particularly because (the selection process) wasn’t handled the way it usually is.”

University System of Georgia spokesman Charles Sutlive said the contributions do not present a conflict. ‘It would be a different story if Sam Olens had given to them,” he said.

Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham said he understands the concerns of many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students about Olens. He noted, though, that Olens kept his word to ensure Georgia courts didn’t impose obstacles to same-sex couples marrying after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing such unions.

“If he becomes the president of KSU,” Graham said. “I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he will protect the rights of students, especially LGBT students, with the dignity and respect that they deserve from the president.”

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