On Tuesday new rumors surfaced naming Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens as Kennesaw State University’s next president. This time the rumors surfaced in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, and they went beyond the “rumor has it” stories that we have seen since early this summer in the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The Atlanta Business Chronicle announced that Mr. Olens is to “become the next president of Kennesaw State University.”  Dave Williams, the writer of the article for the Chronicle, did acknowledge that Governor Nathan Deal’s office and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, declined  to comment on whether Olens will be the next president of KSU.

For some it may seem as though the appointment of a university president at a comprehensive state university is not all that important in the big scheme of things. For those of us involved and for the local community such decisions are quite important. In the case of Kennesaw State University, the decision will impact the university’s population of over 35,000 students  (KSU transactional, unofficial enrollment numbers)  and 1,019  full-time faculty members (KSU 2015-16 Fact Book).  I couldn’t find figures for the number of staff and part-time members of the community, but it’s safe to say that these numbers would add hundreds of addition people to the campus community.

Universities have a large economic and cultural impact on the area surrounding them.  According to Dr. Daniel S. Papp, KSU’s previous president, KSU has had a $1.2 billion impact on the local area.   While the cultural impact cannot be measured so easily, opportunities to attend theater productions, museum exhibits, and other events at the university impact the local community as well.  Who becomes the next president is important.

In my 25 years in higher education I have only once witnessed a lawyer be appointed as a university president. While I was attending Florida State University, Sandy D’Alemberte, the Dean of Florida State University’s College of Law from 1984 – 1989 was appointed president by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994, a year and a half before I graduated from my doctorate program. While I know there have been recent political appointments in the United States for the position of a university president, I have never personally seen an appointment for a person with no university administrative background be considered until this year.  What should be the credentials and experience a person should bring to a large university that sprawls across two campuses? What is the benefit of a national search for a university president?  In what ways does Georgia General Attorney Olens fit the qualifications for university president and what is the impact of an appointment minus a national search on his presidency (if he is indeed hired)?

Bear with my rather long and detailed post.  Sometimes it’s worth exploring issues such as this one in detail.

Conducting Business as the University President

In many ways university presidents are like music conductors.  Conductors must have an understanding of a particular musical instrument and the ability to read music as a starting point.  They must earn an advance degree which depends on an understanding of music theory and the ability to score music so that members of the orchestra can read it and perform it. To score music they must rely on a vision for how the musical composition should come together for its greatest effect. Conductors must then work with all the members of the orchestra to create a uniform performance  that soars and that is free of discordant notes.

University presidents likewise must bring experience and eduction to a position.  They must have an understanding of their own academic field and the ways in which it fits in with other fields.  They then must understand the ways in which a variety of units from across the university help to create student success and bring the university’s mission to fruition. The music they must read is the technical educational jargon of strategic planning. They must understand how to communicate this jargon to various constituents on and off campus.

University presidents have many opportunities to fail to communicate the university’s mission because so many units fall under their guidance.  While it’s easy to sum up the mission of a university as serving and educating students, the mission is made more complicated when we consider what it means to educate students well. How does the culture and the times in which we educate students determine what it means to be educated?  How do we ensure its that education they are receiving?  What organizational structures must be in place so students can concentrate on learning?  University presidents play a role in answering all these questions.

University mission statements are at the heart of ensuring that community members support students in ways that will help them to succeed once they leave the campus.  The most recent statement was shaped by KSU President Papp and Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU) President Lisa A. Rossbacher when the two universities began the consolidation process to become the new KSU. The missions of the two universities before consolidation had been quite disparate for one was a liberal arts institution and the other a polytechnic university  Here is the mission for the new KSU:

“Kennesaw State University offers high-quality and productive undergraduate, graduate, continuing education, and co-curricular programs. These include learning opportunities in architecture, the arts, business, computing, education, engineering and engineering technology, health and human services, honors experiences, humanities and social sciences, interdisciplinary studies, leadership development, the natural and physical sciences, study abroad, and other related disciplines. The University’s research, scholarship, creative activities, and public service initiatives expand and apply knowledge, contribute to economic development, and improve the quality of life in local communities, Georgia, the nation, and the world.
The KSU community values open, honest, and thoughtful intellectual inquiry, innovative and creative problem solving, professionalism, expertise, collaboration, integrity and ethical behavior, engaged citizenship, global understanding, sustainability, mutual respect, and appreciation of human and cultural diversity. The University community strives continually to enhance student success, improve institutional quality and respond to public demand for higher education.”

It is the president’s job to orchestrate–to ensure these values are communicated across  the university at every level. The president must set the foundation, and he/she often does this by creating a cabinet of officials who work to ensure that the mission is guiding their goals for their units. The current KSU president’s cabinet includes sixteen position titles for leaders from across the campus (See Figure 1). Positions such as the Vice President of Student Affairs, Provost and Vice President of Faculty Affairs, and the Chief Diversity Officer have mainly an internal focus.  Positions such as the Vice President for Economic Development and Community Engagement, Government Relations, and the Assistant Vice President for Strategic Communication and Marketing have mainly an external function.

Figure 1: Current KSU President's Cabinet
Figure 1: Current KSU President’s Cabinet

When one considers the number of people that each of these cabinet members represents and the types of activities each represents, it’s clear that university presidents are orchestrating the wellbeing of a large complex organization.  What credentials and experience must someone have to understand and plan for the success of such an organization?  What type of values and characteristics must he/she bring to the position?  In order to answer these questions I went online and found five university president job postings for a national search (Bryan Cook’s research for the American Council on Education indicates that 80% of searches for university presidents between 2007 and 2011 not only used a national search process, but also employed a search consultant).  My findings are summed up in the table below.  For each university I could only select a small number of requirements given constraints of space.


Characteristics of University Presidents
Table 1: Characteristics of University Presidents
* The list that was part of this bullet was too long to fit in the table.  It went on to include “Fiscal Planning & Policy, Contemporary Administrative & Organizational Concepts & Practices, Educational Planning & Evaluation Procedures, Academic Governance & Utilization of New Tech to Deliver Educational Services.

The position qualifications are a bit daunting especially when one considers how much information I didn’t include.  K. Johnson Bowles spent a year studying the role of the presidency in higher education as an American Council on Education Fellow.  She concludes that the job is a “24/7 job like no other. University presidents give “hundreds of speeches a year to an incredible variety of constituents. Audiences need to  literally feel the president’s energy in the room, causing crowds to rise to their feet and “erupt with applause.”   Presidents must be “swift, professional, ethical, transparent, and compassionate” in times of crisis.  Bowles states that because the job has become so demanding, the president’s office has become a “revolving door” in which the “length of tenure has dropped to five years or less.”  She concludes with the idea that a president cannot be one-dimensional because he or she must be “everything to everyone at all times while being a wholly genuine and authentic individual.”

Bowles mainly covers communication skills–she doesn’t cover many of the items listed in table 1.

The Search for the President

If  presidents must be everything to everyone, how do we hire them in a manner that most benefits them as well as the community at large?  I think some people are surprised that this is a question at all.  Shouldn’t a chancellor simply find a person that he believes best meets the job description of a president and hire him or her?  Why should faculty, students, the KSU foundation, community members, and the Board of Regents play a role at all?  Shouldn’t everyone just “buy in” to the choice the chancellor makes?

While university presidents direct a number of entities that are under their control, they must actually answer to the accrediting agencies.  KSU’s diplomas and the reputation of the institution cannot just be recognized in Kennesaw, Georgia or the State of Georgia.  If students wish to graduate and work in the United States, they need their university to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS COC) as well as by organizations concerned with their field of study such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

The most important of these accrediting bodies is SACS COC (it may even impact whether other accrediting bodies will accredit a program), and the new KSU’s SACS COC accreditation will soon be upon us.  As the new KSU we were granted initial accreditation in 2014.  In three years we will need to go through the full accreditation process.  Currently the members of the university are working on ensuring that it will pass accreditation by beginning on its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) and by assessing programs across the university.  If you look back to Table 1, you’ll note several of the universities are looking for leaders with backgrounds in strategic planning. This planning is incredibly important since it will help to determine the university’s ability to maintain accreditation.

You’ll also notice that most of the universities ask for a commitment to diversity.  Diversity is a factor in earning SACS COC accreditation. The SACS COC Diversity Statement not only states that diversity in learning impacts student abilities to work and interact in the “larger, global society,” but it also indicates that diversity should be reflected in the student body of an institution, as well as among “faculty, staff, administrators, trustees and other stakeholder groups” who supply an exposure to a “myriad of cultural backgrounds that enriches the learning and teaching experience.”

SACS COC also lays out the rules that institutions must abide by if they are to be accredited. Section 6.1.5 explains the criteria for the administrative organization.  It indicates that “administrative officers must possess credentials, experience, and/or demonstrated competence appropriate to their areas of responsibility.”

While chancellors are fully capable of finding and appointing candidates who bring qualities that match all of the needs discussed in this post, they often find that utilizing a national search supports their cause.  If one wants to find a conductor for an orchestra, one might want to look beyond one’s own backyard.

In the past those of us who have worked at both SPSU and KSU hired presidents through national searches which allowed constituents from the Georgia Board of Regents, the campus community, and members of the local community to participate in the hiring process. This process uses what is termed shared governance, and it was employed to hire SPSU’s past presidents, Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher and Dr. Stephen R. Cheshier as well as KSU’s past presidents, Dr. Daniel S. Papp and Dr. Betty L. Siegel.

The policy manual for the University System of Georgia defines proper procedures for forming a national search. Section 2.2 stipulates the following conditions if such a search is used: “The committee shall be composed of representatives of the faculty, alumni, foundation, students, and the community. Faculty shall compose the largest number of institutional members of the committee.”  It is the institutional committee’s job to reduce the pool of candidates to 3 – 5 unranked names and to submit those names to the Regents. The chair of the Board of Regents then creates a Regents Special Committee that includes the Regent residing closest to the university in question, and this committee makes the final decision.

The Georgia Board of Regents often relies on national searches for hiring new university presidents. As shown in table 1, a national search for the university president is underway at Valdosta State University. A national search concluded in 2016 for the Georgia Southern University Presidency.  National searches occurred for university presidencies at seven other Georgia institutions during the last three years.

Besides aiding the Chancellor in finding a qualified individual for a presidency, these searches benefit universities in other ways.  They provide a diverse pool of candidates and this aids in ensuring SACS guidelines can be met.  Both KSU and SPSU benefitted from the hiring of strong women candidates who were revealed through these searches.  Constituencies from the university, the community, and the Board of Regents help to determine that credentials and experience create a good fit between the new president and the campus community.

The new president experiences benefits from the search as well.  Whether constituents agree with the final decision or not, they believe a valid effort was made to hire the most qualified candidate.  In many ways this is the same benefit that is gained from an election cycle for the president of the United States.  While many U.S. citizens would like the current election cycle to end already and are less than thrilled with the current candidates, they would be even more dismayed if the current president simply told them who would become the next president.

An Appointed President: Georgia Attorney General Olens

While qualified conductors can be found in one’s backyard (that’s exactly where President Papp was found), a good proportion of university constituents have come to expect a national search because of its benefits in locating the strongest candidate. Because our past university presidents were hired through national searches using shared governance, I think quite a few of us were surprised to learn in the Marietta Daily Journal and The Atlanta Journal Constitution the rumors that Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens would be our next president.  Most important to KSU is ensuring the best education possible for all students at a reasonable cost and meeting SACS qualifications for accreditation.  Finding the best possible president for the university is important.  I think many of us here at KSU would love to be using many of the qualifications in table 1 that Valdosta State has set for  finding our next president.

The Faculty Senate and the KSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have communicated concerns about the lack of process for this search. The Senate sent a letter to Interim President Davis on September 2, 2016, in order to request a national search be conducted since such a search would uphold the mutual commitment the Board of Regents and the KSU faculty have for the “democratic process of shared governance.”

KSU Chapter President Andrew Pieper sent an email to Kessel Stelling, Jr., Chair of the Georgia Board of Regents supporting the Faculty Senate’s belief in the benefits of shared governance. It also implored the Board of Regents to consider KSU’s needs for strong and stable academic leadership as KSU continues to work through rapid change, an involuntary consolidation, and substantial growth.  I think for people not involved in the consolidation that it is easy to forget the challenges administration, faculty, and students still face because of the consolidation.  While I believe most of us are feeling on surer ground this year than we felt last year, consolidations are hard on the people involved in the process.  Merger experts such as Verona Kusstascher and Cary Cooper, the authors of Managing Emotions in Mergers and Acquisitions, indicate that mergers often fail or succeed depending upon the amount of attention focused on “soft factors” such as culture and human resources.

Not only has the consolidation kept things a bit shaky, but the growth the university continues to experience fuels needs for additional space and resources. The Marietta Campus continues the growth begun under President Rossbacher.  Figures given to me by Electrical Engineering Chair Lance Crimm indicate a solid percentage of the growth for KSU this past fall has taken place on the Marietta Campus. The Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology added 704 students to its programs this fall. This number accounts for 31% of new student growth for KSU. These numbers don’t include growth in the College of Computing Sciences and Software Engineering or the College of Architecture and Construction Management, two other colleges located on the Marietta campus. All of these programs have large needs for equipment and space and the next president will need to address planned growth.

How will Attorney General Olens’s credentials and experience help KSU? According to Olens’s LinkedIn page, he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in International Politics at American University and a Doctorate of Jurisprudence at Emory University’s School of Law in 1983.  From what I can tell all of his work experience is in the law. His current office does have a bit of the makings for a large, complex organization. The Georgia Attorney General’s Office oversees seven different sections of the law (excuse me if my terminology is incorrect–my experience is in education, not the law). This experience should help him to some degree.

Olens expands on his experience in his biography at the Attorney General website, He indicates that he has used his position to strengthen laws against sex trafficking, to fight prescription drug abuse, and to tighten Georgia’s Sunshine Laws concerning open

Georgia Attorney General Olens--Image from the Georgia Attorney General website
Georgia Attorney General Olens–Image from the Georgia Attorney General website

government records.  He also currently serves as the Vice President of the National Association of Attorneys General—he served as the Chair of the Southern Region in 2013 and 2015.

Other work indicates that Olens has been a leader in the Cobb Community. He was Chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners from August 2002 through March 2010 and he was County Commissioner from 1999 through June 2002.  Olens also served as chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission from December 2004 through 2009, and as Vice-Chair of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District.  His record of service has been noted, and he was granted the “Excellence in Public Service Award” by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute, and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce honored him by naming their annual community service award the “Sam Olens Business Community Service Award.”

His closest ties to the world of education seem to be his work creating a video contest for high school students concerned with stemming the tide of prescription pill abuse as well as his efforts to ensure the youth of the state are fed through his establishment of the Georgia Legal Food Frenzy, which has collected the equivalent of over five million pounds of food.  I don’t see in Attorney General Olens’s background years serving as a teacher, an administrator of an institution of education, or on a board of education.

I don’t know much about Olens’s work on the Cobb County Board of Commissioners; however, I am going to assume that his understand of the Board and his past role as chair will be useful to him as KSU’s president and that his understanding of the Board of Commissioners will benefit KSU.

Olens’s lack of direct experience in higher education and concerns about how he has

Poster advertising student protest on Monday, October 3rd
Poster advertising student protest on Monday, October 3rd

handled diversity issues related to LGBTQ rights as attorney general are Olens’s biggest liabilities at the moment.  Over 4,200 people have signed a petition entitled “Demand Anti-LGBTQ Attorney General Sam Olens Not be Appointed President of Kennesaw State University.”  Students plan to  gather Monday on the KSU Campus Green at noon to protest the appointment.

Diversity is an important issue for KSU both because of SACS accreditation, but also because the university sees diversity and an understanding of a global world as important to its current QEP.  Last April the INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine

Dr. Erick Malewski and Dr. Papp receiving the Heed Award. Image from KSU.
Dr. Erik Malewski, Chief Diversity Officer, and Dr. Papp receiving the Heed Award. Image from KSU.

presented it’s Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award to KSU.  The magazine also named KSU as one of the eight universities which they have selected as part of their inaugural class for “Diversity Champions.”

If Olens takes office at KSU, he will need to earn the trust of community members who are dedicated to ensuring that all students have equal access to education.


If one were to assess the response to the news of the appointment of Georgia Attorney General Olens as president of the KSU, one would find that the campus is in turmoil.  Some people are mostly concerned with the process–a national search is the current standard for hiring presidents.  Others worry about his credentials and experience and the way they don’t quite add up as well as they could.  Still others feel this isn’t the time to bring in someone who may need to learn on the job–they want a president who can create a solid foundation on which to grow a university. The most vocal group against this appointment currently is concerned with issues of diversity.

There are faculty members and students who would like to see Olens as president.  They feel his experience while not speaking directly to the position, will translate in the end.  If his experience truly serves the university better than another candidate’s experience, deciding to place his application in with those of others, should see Olens rise to the top.

My personal concern lies with serving and educating students. I don’t want to see the overall wellbeing of students and those who serve them lost in the battle of an Olens’s appointment.  I’ve seen too many news stories cover the rumors without examining what Olens brings to the students and the university.  Instead several of the stories have focused on the governor, questioning him on whether the rumors are true, and then speculating on who will replace Olens as Georgia’s attorney general. The Board of Regents and the Chancellor are supposed to determine who is the new president, not the governor.

Before you leave the post, please take some time to go to the University System of Georgia’s page that lists information concerning Georgia university presidents. A basic search on each person will allow you to see that each has the type of credentials and experience discussed earlier.  Why should the KSU president be any different?