October 19, 2016 - Atlanta - Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sam Olens to leave Kennesaw State University

Sam Olens announced Thursday he’s stepping down as Kennesaw State University’s president on Feb. 15, after mounting criticism of his handling of a protest by some cheerleaders and other decisions.

A state report released last month found Olens ignored guidelines on how to respond to student protests concerning the national anthem. The report was done after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained text messages that suggested Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, pressured Olens to make changes that prevented such protests.

The AJC first reported last week that Olens was considering leaving KSU as some groups, like the Cobb County Southern Christian Leadership Conference, demanded he resign.

The Georgia Board of Regents said in a statement it will conduct a national search for Olens’ replacement, a step they did not take when it voted to hire him in November 2016. He was the lone candidate for the job, to the dismay of many KSU faculty and students. Olens’ supporters cited his resume - former Georgia Attorney General and chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners - as qualifications for him being the perfect candidate for the job.

Ken Harmon, KSU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, will become the university’s interim president.

1. Sam Olens, 60, is the former president of Kennesaw State University. 2. Olens is a Florida native and Emory School of Law graduate. 3. He served as Georgia's attorney general from 2011-2016. 4. Olens' 2010 election was the first time a Jewish candidate won a statewide partisan race in Georgia. 5. In 2016, Georgia Trend named him Georgian of the Year.

Olens noted in a letter to students and staff that he was a “non-traditional candidate” for the job and that unspecified “challenges to the institution” made for a difficult start. Still, Olens said there were positive changes made during his tenure, such as a new admissions model 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.

Olens’ letter did not explain why he was resigning. Critics said Olens made a series of missteps, such as removing the phrase “social justice” from some faculty job descriptions and plans to end its Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality degree, two years after receiving the largest single donor gift in the university’s history for the program.

Faculty members asked Olens to answer an array of written questions about the protest and other campus issues. They also wanted a forum to discuss their concerns.KSU professor Susan Raines, one of three faculty members who filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission objecting to the way Olens was hired, said she hopes his departure will bring about greater transparency on campus.

“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,” she said.

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