UGA provost headed for KSU presidency

Pamela Whitten will have a full plate if, as expected, she becomes the next president of Kennesaw State University.

About one-half of the deans are leaving for better jobs or retirement. Many other deans are relatively new. There are some concerns about KSU's finances because of a new enrollment process expected to make it tougher for students to be accepted. And there's the matter of improving campus morale after February's resignation of president Sam Olens, who left after 16 months on the job amid several campus controversies.

Whitten, who has been provost at the University of Georgia since 2014, was named Tuesday as the finalist for the top job at KSU. The Georgia Board of Regents is scheduled to vote soon on her candidacy. She’s scheduled to visit KSU on Friday.

Whitten said in a statement she’s excited about the possibility of leading the university with Georgia’s third-largest enrollment, located in Cobb County.

“Together, we can expand successful outcomes and meaningful learning experiences for all students, boost faculty research and provide greater outreach services to improve the quality of life for citizens locally and beyond,” she said.

Some KSU faculty and students said they thought Whitten is well-qualified, but some said they are disappointed with the selection process. Specifically, the complaints focus on the finalist being selected after the spring semester ended so there will be few students on campus to meet Whitten.

“It mirrors the lack of transparency of the selection process of President Olens a couple of years ago,” said Alexa Vaca, 23, a senior majoring in political science.

The names of other candidates should have been released, others said.

KSU management professor Doug Moodie, who chaired the presidential search and screen committee, defended the process. He said the committee conducted interviews with nine good candidates — Whitten was first — and that student government association leaders are in charge of organizing time for Whitten to meet with students. Moodie noted most presidents do not leave during a semester and the committee was forced to do its work faster. KSU needs a new leader now, he said.

“We couldn’t wait,” Moodie told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We couldn’t be in limbo.”

Olens, then Georgia Attorney General, was the only candidate in 2016. That angered some KSU faculty and students, along with his lack of academic and administrative experience. Olens' supporters thought the connenctions he made as Cobb County Commission chairman would help him succeed.

Olens' stewardship at KSU was damaged after he was reprimanded in a special state review for failing to follow official guidance in dealing with five African-American cheerleaders who knelt during the national anthem at a Sept. 30 football game. The kneeling was in protest, they said, of racism and inequality.

The inquiry into Olens' actions was sparked by an AJC report that Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, boasted of having forced Olens to stop the young women from kneeling on the field.

Some students held campus protests against Olens. The Cobb County Southern Christian Leadership Conference demanded Olens resign. Olens is now a partner at the high-powered Dentons law firm.

KSU adjunct professor and doctoral student Wim Laven, who initially supported Olens’ hire, said the drama had a “chilling impact on campus.” He hopes the next president will do more to understand faculty needs and better engage with students who have specific concerns. Laven, 40, thought the selection process went better this time and is pleased with Whitten’s credentials because she is “well-versed in higher education.”

Moodie said the committee interviewed Whitten for more than one hour and he liked her energy and research background. She’s considered an expert in telemedicine and has co-authored two books and published more than 100 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters, according to her UGA biography.

Moodie said he’s hoping Whitten can bring stability to KSU, considering the ongoing turnover in deans at the university.

“There’s a huge leadership vacuum at the moment,” he said.

The story so far:

What happened? Sam Olens resigned his position as Kennesaw State University president in February.

The latest: University of Georgia provost Pamela Whitten was named the finalist to become Kennesaw State's next president.

What's next? The Georgia Board of Regents will vote on Whitten.