Trying to Pre-empt a Presidency

Students and faculty members rally against appointment of a politician as next president of Kennesaw State, in part because of his anti-gay record.

October 3, 2016
 

Students at Kennesaw State University are planning a rally today to oppose the appointment of Sam Olens, Georgia's attorney general, as the university's next president. A petition is also gathering support.

Olens hasn't even been officially nominated for the job, let alone approved by the state's Board of Regents. But reports have been circulating for months -- causing alarm among both students and faculty members at Kennesaw State, an institution of 33,000 located outside Atlanta and the third largest university in Georgia. In the last 10 days, the reports have shifted from Olens being seriously under consideration to that he has become the sole candidate in contention.

Not only hasn't Olens been appointed, but faculty leaders note that the state Board of Regents has not even appointed a search committee (one that would presumably consider other candidates and might consult with professors). So critics say that a politician without experience in higher education could be about to lead a fast-growing university without the benefit of a search.

Adding to the concerns of many is that Olens has taken stands against gay rights at several points in his career. And those stands include positions similar to those taken by North Carolina lawmakers that have resulted in litigation against the University of North Carolina over a state law (which the university is not enforcing) that would bar the system's campuses from permitting transgender students to use bathrooms that reflect their gender identity.

The issue of whether politicians should become university presidents is much debated. While many advocates for nontraditional presidents would point to the successes of Thomas Kean at Drew University and Terry Sanford at Duke University as evidence that politicians can earn praise for leading universities, others note that not every politician has those former governors' records of interest in education and understanding of academe. Many times, faculty members complain that searches are effectively rigged for politicians, but sometimes publicity about concerns can result in the rejection of a political or politically connected candidate -- as happened last month at the University of West Florida.

At Kennesaw State, faculty leaders have been raising concerns for months about the lack of a formal search committee -- even as rumors grew that the board was preparing to offer Olens the job. (Olens has declined comment, as have leaders of the Board of Regents.)

In May, when many started to be alarmed by the lack of a search committee, the presidents of Kennesaw State's Faculty Senate and campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote jointly to the Board of Regents asking for a search committee to be appointed. Their letter did not mention Olens, but did mention controversies over nontraditional choices for presidents who took office at the University of Iowa and Mount St. Mary's University. The Iowa president remains in office despite widespread faculty opposition. and the Mount St. Mary's president quit in February amid continued debate over his remark that struggling students should be thought of bunnies to be drowned or killed with a Glock.

The Faculty Senate president followed in September with another letter requesting a national search.

Faculty leaders originally held back from criticizing Olens and focused largely on the lack of a search. But many have noted that he has not worked in higher education. Before becoming attorney general of Georgia in 2011, he was chair of Cobb County Board of Commissioners. (The university is located in the county.)

As attorney general, Olens defended Georgia's ban on same-sex marriage. And his office, on behalf of the state, joined in a lawsuit seeking to block the U.S. Education Department from applying Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to transgender students and ordering colleges and universities to provide bathroom facilities consistent with those students' gender identities.

Leonard Witt, professor of communication at Kennesaw State, wrote an essay in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution outlining his concerns. He wrote that Kennesaw State could expect boycotts such as those that have hit North Carolina if Olens adopted policies he favored at the university. "Just see what is happening in North Carolina, where the state Legislature and governor passed laws opposing gender-neutral bathrooms. In North Carolina, sanctions are piecemeal around the whole state. Not so here. Kennesaw State University will be ground zero and there will be plenty of collateral damage," Witt wrote.

He added that, in a regular search, Olens could be welcome to apply -- but he would be vetted through the process.

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