Olens resigns at KSU; national search for successor planned

Kennesaw State University student and faculty leaders critical of Sam Olens hope its next president will be picked based on the person’s academic qualifications, not a political resume.

Georgia’s Board of Regents will conduct a national search to replace Olens, who announced Thursday he will resign, effective Feb. 15.

Many faculty and students criticized the board last year for not conducting such a search when it hired Olens, the lone candidate for the job. Olens' supporters cited his local and political ties — former Georgia Attorney General and chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners — as qualifications that made him perfect for it. Olens, critics noted, had no administrative experience at any college or university.

This time, a presidential search committee will include faculty, staff, students, alumni and KSU’s local community, University System of Georgia officials said in a statement. Three to five candidates will be considered. Ken Harmon, KSU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, will become the university’s interim president.

“I really hope in this national search, the Board of Regents will look for someone who fits in with the ideals of the student body, not the political climate of Cobb County,” said Carlynn Sharpe, 25, a KSU graduate student who’s worked with student groups to address campus concerns with Olens.

Susan Raines, a KSU professor of conflict management, echoed those thoughts.

“We hope that his departure will begin the process of restoring shared governance, reduce the flight of top-notch faculty and administrators, and return legitimacy to campus decision-making,” said Raines, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over Olens’ hiring.

Olens' resignation letter to students and staff did not specify why he's departing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that there was mutual agreement that it wasn't a good fit.

Some Regents were "disappointed" by Olens' response to a student protest, which was criticized in a recent state review. The report was done after the AJC obtained text messages that suggested Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, had pressured Olens to make changes that prevented such protests.

State officials say there was also frustration over struggles to communicate and coordinate with members and staffers of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system. Board of Regents chairman C. Thomas Hopkins referred a request for comment to a board spokesman. A telephone call to Olens was not immediately returned Thursday.

Olens' downfall from KSU was sudden. Just eight weeks ago, many of Cobb's top leaders gathered on campus for a ceremony to formally install Olens as president. The event, though, was interrupted by a group of students who conducted a silent protest during the national anthem, much like the cheerleaders who had done so a month earlier at a football game, a move that divided the campus and community.

Three weeks later, the university system released a report that Olens didn't follow its guidance that national-anthem student protests were constitutionally protected free speech and should be allowed unless they cause a disruption. It also said any changes by a college should be discussed with the USG. KSU implemented a change, without discussing it with the USG, that kept its cheerleaders in its stadium tunnel before the anthem. Olens later announced cheerleaders would be back on the field during the anthem.

The cheerleaders, whom some called the Kennesaw 5, said in a statement Thursday they hope to be involved in KSU’s presidential search.

“We are hopeful for Kennesaw’s future and look forward to being apart (sic) of that future,” they said.

Critics said Olens made a series of missteps, such as removing the phrase "social justice" from some faculty job descriptions. Olens said there were positive changes made during his tenure, such as a new admissions process and programs to help at-risk students.

“While I view this transition as the best course of action for the University, I do so with the realization that I will miss working on behalf of the students at KSU who have the potential to do remarkable things and serve as tomorrow’s leaders,” Olens wrote to students and staff.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, a longtime friend of Olens, credited him for addressing some financial challenges on campus and lower-cost meal plans. Tippins disagreed with critiques about Olens’ academic experience, noting he led a large government in Cobb.

“I think we’ve lost a good president,” Tippins said.

Olens is paid $435,832 in salary and benefits. He’ll continue to receive that salary through June, unless he finds another job, university system officials said.

KSU, with about 35,000 students, is the third-largest public university in the state, behind Georgia State and the University of Georgia. The campus has felt the tug-and-pull in recent years between the traditionally conservative values of many longtime residents and the campus culture of a rapidly growing university. Some hoped Olens could successfully manage it, but critics say he didn't.

Josh Azriel, a professor of journalism, said KSU employees were never certain about how decisions were being made and criticized Olens for never visiting different colleges to talk to faculty and answer questions.

He blamed an opaque selection process – there was no search committee of faculty, students and staff leading the process — and Olens’ lack of experience in academia for his problems.

“You want people with some experience in the area. You might not ask a medical director to manage a restaurant and you might not want that same restaurant manager to conduct a physical as a doctor,” Azriel said. “With our profession, you want a leader who understands the nature of the education business.”

He praised Harmon for a “tradition” of visiting with colleges and departments to listen to their concerns. Among their chief priorities: Boosting the number of full-time faculty for a school with burgeoning enrolment.

And hiring a veteran educator for the role.