Kyrefe Harper, a senior at KSU (left) majoring in accouting, and Tahir Upshaw, a junior, (center) majoring in mechanical engineering, speak with counter-protester Neil Wolin, a junior (right) majoring in professional sales, at KSU on October 19, 2017. A group of Kennesaw State University students are protesting in support of the KSU cheerleaders who want to take a knee in protest of police brutality during the national anthem. Rebecca Breyer
Photo: Rebecca Breyer
Photo: Rebecca Breyer

Plaudits and protests to support KSU cheerleaders at Olens ceremony

Amid a national controversy and a pending review by the state Board of Regents, Sam Olens was officially installed Thursday as Kennesaw State University’s president, in a deflated celebration punctuated by student protests.

Olens did not address campus tensions during his 10-minute speech to a half-empty auditorium in the school’s Convocation Center. Instead, he used his time at the lectern to pay homage to his deceased parents and expounded on his vision for KSU, the state’s third-largest university.

“It is not enough simply to admit students to this university,” Olens said. “We must find ways to inspire them and to do everything in our power to ensure their success.”

Just days earlier, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published texts between Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, in which they boasted of “dragging” a reluctant Olens to keep KSU cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem, after several took a knee during the anthem at a Sept. 30 football game to raise awareness about police brutality.

The texts cast doubt on Olens’ assertion that the decision to delay the cheerleaders’ entrance onto the field until after the anthem at future games was made by the athletics department. The Board of Regents quickly announced it was conducting a special review to look into “recent allegations raised about athletic processes” at KSU.

Regents chairman C. Thomas Hopkins offered congratulatory remarks Thursday, as did University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Cobb Republican, indirectly addressed the situation when he referenced “rough waters” in his speech, but said KSU is in good hands with Olens, a longtime friend.

“I’ve never seen anyone more honest than Sam Olens,” Tippins said.

About a handful of students knelt during the anthem at the investiture ceremony Thursday before filing out in silence. They were joined by several hundred demonstrators who occupied the campus green for the reception afterward, which Olens did not attend. Chanting protesters competed for attention with a marching band and a jazz troupe playing Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” as students and faculty milled about tents offering food and refreshments.

Dania Luc, a student activist, addressed the protesters through a megaphone.

“For those of you who are scared to take a knee, wear your t-shirts or wave your signs, I want you to understand that Kennesaw State is a public institution,” she said.

She also criticized the regents for not conducting an open search to find KSU’s president when they hired Olens in October 2016, saying the position should not be a “consolation prize” or a “political favor.”

A university spokesperson said Olens was not available for comment.

Olens now finds himself caught between two sides: conservative officials and members of the community who accuse the cheerleaders and their supporters of disrespecting the flag and the military, and students and faculty who consider him a political pawn.

So far, the cloud over his young presidency shows no sign of lifting. Student organizers are already planning a demonstration at Saturday’s football game.

Georgia State University public policy professor emeritus Harvey Newman said Olens’ longstanding ties with Cobb and state leaders will likely help him during the board review. Olens previously served as Cobb County Chairman and state attorney general.

“He’s been one of them. He’s in good stead,” Newman said. “I don’t think he would have gotten the job without those relationships.”

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