Olens charts next course after leaving KSU

Former Attorney General Sam Olens has joined the Atlanta office of the Dentons law firm, where he plans to leverage his work in local and state government – as well as his brief foray into higher education – to help craft policy in Georgia and elsewhere.

In his most extensive comments since he stepped down from Kennesaw State University, Olens said Tuesday that the glacial pace of academia and staunch opposition from a "vocal minority" sped his departure. His final day at the school was last week, capping a tumultuous stint that lasted about a year.

And he said he was ready to jump back into wonky policy that drove him to run for public office, where he parlayed his role as chairman of Cobb County’s Commission to a pair of statewide election victories and speculation about a potential run for governor.

“I was never happier in the law than when I was attorney general,” Olens said. “And this platform will allow me to be involved in the law in the same way, just with a broader set of issues.”

Olens helped influence some of the metro area’s biggest debates over the past two decades as chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a Cobb leader, including the expansion of transit and the long-running legal battle over water rights.

He said he’ll seek work for clients on those issues at Dentons, and he expects the understanding of academia he gained during his short-lived tenure at KSU will also be valuable. That experience, he said, gave him a window into what he described as the ossified world of academia.

“It clearly was not the right fit,” Olens said. “The idea was for me to go to a large university that had significant problems where I was familiar with the business community. But that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t accepted before I arrived there, by a small vocal minority, and that wasn’t going to change.”

Olens, a Republican who was elected to the first of two terms as the state's attorney general in 2010, resigned in November 2016 to take the job at the fast-growing school of 35,000 students. That move, sanctioned by Gov. Nathan Deal, allowed Deal to appoint his protégé Chris Carr as Georgia's top attorney.

While his supporters hoped Olens’ influential connections and reputation as a consensus-builder would elevate the school, critics questioned whether Deal put a premium on Olens’ political ties and ignored his lack of academic experience.

Olens ran afoul of student and faculty leaders, as well as some Board of Regents power brokers, over a series of miscues.

He was reprimanded in a review ordered by the regents for failing to follow official guidance in dealing with five black cheerleaders who knelt during the national anthem at a football game to protest racism and inequality.

It came after records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed two powerful Cobb officials, Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, boasted about pressuring Olens to stop the young women from kneeling on the field.

He also faced criticism for removing "social justice" from some job descriptions and plans to end a culinary program. The fallout placed more pressure on an already-strained relationship between Olens and higher education officials who chafed at his appointment in the first place.

Kennesaw State recently announced a search committee that will find Olens’ replacement.

In the interview, Olens declined to delve into more specifics about his departure, but he said it gave him insight into how to tackle systemic challenges in the higher education hierarchy.

“Our young people have boundless potential. But if anything, higher education is currently limiting their growth,” Olens said. “And in this job, I could end up consulting with institutions of higher learning. I very much understand what they’re faced with.”

Olens will join his predecessor as attorney general, Thurbert Baker, who is also a partner with the firm. He’s known several other partners for decades, and he was co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s Georgia campaign in 2012 with Eric Tanenblatt, the chairman of the firm’s public policy practice.

“We have built this legacy having people from government coming into the firm in a bipartisan manner,” said Tanenblatt, who said the firm now employs five former attorneys general.

Olens also has the support of another Cobb County politico, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who said in a statement the two are a “great fit.” And Olens said he’s ready to dive into nitty-gritty policymaking that he grew to love in public office.

“I have a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I always made it a point to be collaborative rather than confrontational. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting things done.”


SAM OLENS’ CAREER

1998-2010: Served on Cobb County Commission; was its chairman since 2002.

2010-2016: Georgia attorney general

Nov. 2016-Dec. 2017: President of Kennesaw State University

Currently: Works for the Dentons law firm