Students protest as Georgia AG Sam Olens officially named Kennesaw State president

The state Board of Regents voted Wednesday to name Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens as Kennesaw State University president. Olens replaces Dan Papp in a move that’s drawn protest from students and faculty upset over his LGBT rights record and lack of higher education experience.

More than a dozen students interrupted the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, demanding a nationwide search and chanting “We must love and protect each other.” The board went into a five-minute recess as the students spoke according to the AJC.

Students and faculty are upset not only by the lack of input on the matter from either group, but also by Olens’ stances on marriage equality and transgender rights as attorney general. He famously decided to fight a Lambda Legal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban in 2014, saying marriage equality is not a “fundamental right.” And this May he joined Georgia with 10 other states in a lawsuit fighting the Obama administration’s protections for transgender students.

Governor Nathan Deal named Chris Carr, the state’s economic development commissioner, to become the state’s new attorney general. The AJC reports that the move puts Carr in the middle of the state’s “religious freedom” bill fight and that it could become the focus of his election battle in two years. State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) is a major advocate for the legislation and is a possible candidate for Carr’s new position when it’s up for election in 2018. Influential corporations and business groups like Georgia Power, AGL Resources and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce (who all helped to defeat HB757 in this year’s legislative session) have already come out in favor of Carr’s appointment.

Kennesaw State University students march in Sunday's Atlanta Pride parade. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)
Kennesaw State University students march in Sunday’s Atlanta Pride parade. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

Students create petition, on-campus rally

For Lane Hunter, a current KSU student who is transgender, the opposition to Olens becoming president is primarily about experience, followed by his LGBT rights record.

“We do not want or need a politician in office,” Hunter told the Georgia Voice in comments before Wednesday’s vote. “We need an educator with managerial experience and higher education experience, and one who is accepting of all students.”

Hunter, along with transgender KSU alumnus Sarah Rose, created an online petition in response to the news about Olens, demanding a national search be conducted to fill the position. The petition has garnered over 16,000 supporters.

Rose and Jessica Fisher, a transgender KSU student, also organized an Oct. 4 on-campus protest against the move.

Olens not ‘eligible to be a faculty member’

Scott Ritchie, a queer KSU faculty member, echoes Hunter’s concerns about Olens’ background and LGBT record.

“All 28 public colleges and universities in Georgia have a president with an academic background. Each president holds a doctorate and is qualified to be a faculty member at his/her institution. The vast majority of these presidents went through a hiring process that included a national search. Those that did not served first as interim president and then were appointed,” Ritchie told the Georgia Voice before Wednesday’s vote. “Sam Olens does not have an academic background, nor does he hold a doctorate. He would not be eligible to be a faculty member because of this. Olens was tapped to be appointed behind closed doors without input from faculty, staff, students, alumni, or community members. This threatens KSU’s overall accreditation as well as the accreditation of certain colleges such as education.”

Chris Carr, the state's new attorney general. (Courtesy photo)
Chris Carr, the state’s new attorney general. (Courtesy photo)

Ritchie adds that Olens’ lawsuit against the transgender directive and opposition to same-sex marriage puts in danger the strides the school has made regarding LGBT rights, including having a presidential commission on LGBT initiatives (which Olens would oversee as president) and being the first university in Georgia to have gender neutral campus housing.

“I have heard from over 300 full-time faculty who are opposed to Olens’ appointment. When the faculty senate recently polled departments whether they believe the Board of Regents should conduct a national search, over 25 departments conducted the poll. Each department polled reported that the majority of faculty said yes,” says Ritchie, who is the professional liaison for diversity at the school’s College of Education. “Over 50 faculty and administrators attended the student rally … to show support for LGBTQ students. I support the students’ efforts and will continue to work with them as we move forward.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, weighed in after Wednesday’s vote, telling the Georgia Voice, “I hope that Sam Olens will move quickly and decisively to ease the concerns expressed by KSU’s LGBT students, faculty and alumni that the positions he took as attorney general did not represent his personal views on LGBT issues. He needs to meet with those groups to understand why there is such a level of mistrust and how his past actions as AG were experienced by the LGBT community. I also hope that we will be as vigilant in his defense of KSU’s established pro-LGBT policies as he was in defending Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage.”