Kennesaw State University is in the process of changing its online class management system to allow students to list both their preferred name and pronoun – a change brought on after complaints from the school’s transgender and gender nonconforming students. It’s something the school’s Presidential Commission on GLBTIQ Initiatives has been working on for years, but commission members say there was one person who finally made it happen: newly named university President Sam Olens.
Olens, of course, is the former Georgia attorney general who defended the state in a lawsuit challenging its 2004 ban on same-sex marriage and last year joined 10 other states in suing the federal government, arguing it had no authority to direct the nation’s public school districts to permit students to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
The state Board of Regents approved Olens as KSU president last fall, leading to outcry and protests from many of the school’s LGBT students, faculty, staff and allies. Now, three months into the job, Olens is being credited with helping transgender students’ campus experience, but some concerns remain.
Olens defends record as attorney general
When asked about criticism of his LGBT record, Sam Olens has repeatedly stated he was just doing his job as attorney general of the state and that that doesn’t necessarily reflect his personal views.
Referencing the lawsuit against the transgender directive, Olens told Georgia Voice, “It’s not Sam Olens suing, it’s the state of Georgia suing. The legal context is very different than the political context. The legal issue is whether or not the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have the legal authority to change the laws of the Legislature.”
He wouldn’t say what his personal view is on same-sex marriage, but he pointed to the smooth transition the state had once the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in June 2015, a transition helped by Olens and Gov. Nathan Deal’s vows to follow the law of the land. Olens also said he personally stepped in when probate judges weren’t abiding by the decision.
“Folks in the LGBT community would call my office and say X probate judge was not following the law, and I would tell that judge to follow the law,” he said. “Georgia should be very proud of the way it handled the enforcement of the decision.”
Transgender student complaints lead to changes
Prior to taking office, after the Board of Regents named him school president, Olens started meeting with campus LGBT leadership to hear their concerns – most of whom were leading rallies against him just weeks before. Aracely Garcia, a KSU student and president of the Kennesaw Pride Alliance, was one of those students.
“He was adamant that he would not interfere with the success of any GLBTIQ programs on campus,” Garcia told Georgia Voice of the meetings. “He said he was determined to increase the retention and graduation rates of the university, and if the GLBTIQ programs help increase those rates, he had no intention of removing them. We asked him to release an official letter to the whole campus from the president’s office supporting the claims he made to us; he released that letter a week or so after our meeting. He also offered to have an informal Q&A with GLBTIQ students if that was something they wanted to do.”
However, Garcia said President Olens needs to do a better job of reaching out to the LGBT student body at large.
Nayasia Coleman, a KSU alumnus who serves as a staff member in GLBTIQ Student Programs and as co-chair of the Presidential Commission on GLBTIQ Initiatives, said Olens has been supportive and eager to be engaged with the campus community.
One of those topics that kept coming up during Olens’ meetings with LGBT student leaders was transgender students being called by their birth name by professors and fellow students.
“Several transgender students have told me that if fellow students call them by their given name instead of their chosen name, they get embarrassed and we don’t want that,” Olens told Georgia Voice.
Olens then instructed the school’s chief information officer to get to work changing the school’s Desire 2 Learn (D2L) class management system.
“Not only did he want to change D2L, but he wanted our IT team to look critically at all of our systems to see where legal name is necessary versus unnecessary,” Coleman said.
Help with KSU’s changes came courtesy of the registrar at the University of Vermont, believed to be the first school in the nation to make such updates to their class management system. Phase one of the initiative – letting students list their preferred name instead of their given name – will start spring semester of this year and phase two, letting students list their preferred pronoun, will start fall semester.
“I have made numerous statements that I personally very much support an inclusive, diverse atmosphere and that there should be no individuals on this campus that should be concerned about me personally affecting their lifestyle or certain such decisions,” Olens said.
It’s those kinds of word choices (“lifestyle,” “decisions”) that leave concerns for LGBT students like Garcia, who felt Olens was condescending during his meetings with LGBT student leaders. She recommended that he take part in “safe space” training offered through the school’s GLBTIQ Student Programs.
But Coleman sounded more optimistic.
“Despite a controversial start, we have been able to create a lot of great change in a short amount of time,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to work together to ensure KSU’s legacy of diversity lives on. To share [Olens’] sentiments, we can always be doing more.”