Sam Olens, the controversial pick for president of Kennesaw State University, dismissed criticism of his anti-LGBT record as Georgia's attorney general, but pledged to meet with LGBT students to discuss their concerns.
And there are plenty of them to chat about.
LGBT students launched a petition drive to oppose Olens' selection as president, they rallied against him on campus and they protested at the Oct. 12 meeting when the Board of Regents picked him. But when Olens takes over on Nov. 1, he has some explaining to do about his record as the state's top lawyer when he fought gay marriage and transgender equality.
Now that he's been named KSU's new president, Olens has spoken out and brushed off criticism of his record as attorney general. Via the AJC:
Q: The LGBTQ community has been concerned with your positions defending the same-sex marriage amendment…
A: “So they weren’t my positions, they were the state’s positions. I took an oath of office to defend the laws of the state and that’s what I did…So it’s not a personal issue. It was my legal responsibility. I have a meeting set with leading members of the LGBTQ community at Kennesaw already.”
After losing on gay marriage, Olens joined with other conservative elected officials in Georgia and threw a fit over transgender students earlier this year. He joined Gov. Nathan Deal in blasting new federal guidelines concerning the fair and equal treatment of transgender students. Then he joined several states in suing the federal government over the guidelines, a lawsuit that led to an injunction barring the guidelines.
As KSU president, Olens seems content to pass the buck on transgender issues. Via the AJC:
Q: As far as the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter that was sent out last year regarding transgender students (being allowed to use public school restrooms that best fit their gender identity)…
A: “I represented the state. There’s millions of dollars involved from the state. I had clients from the state that were very interested in that.”
Q: And now as KSU president, what will your position be on that?
A: “As KSU president, I take the lead from the Board of Regents. So no longer, Nov. 1, being the lawyer for the state, those types of policy decisions are really called by the Board of Regents and the (University System of Georgia) Chancellor. Secondly, my job as KSU president, like my job now, is to make sure there is a safe and creative environment for all students on that campus…It’s a totally different position. It’s a totally different set of responsibilities.”
In a statement issued when he was named KSU president, Olens said the values of the campus are consistent with his and the he's OK with "tolerance." Via 11 Alive:
Additionally, the grit and determination that Kennesaw State students are known for and the inclusive campus community are consistent with who I am and the values that I hold.
I know that you have many questions about how I plan to lead this university. As president, I strongly believe in mutual respect, open communication, and tolerance . The growth that has created many opportunities for our faculty, staff, and students, also comes with some challenges. We need to work together to find solutions that will enable Kennesaw State to continue to thrive.
But Olens faces an uphill climb with LGBT students and faculty at KSU. Devyn Springer, an LGBT student and senior at the school, called Olens' appointment "frightening."
"He doesn't make students feel safe. None of the students feel safe. I work in the GLTBTIQ center on campus and none of us feel safe with him coming there," Springer told WSB.
Olens defended his anti-LGBT work in an interview with Atlanta Jewish Times, again arguing that he was simply doing his job.
That letter did not stop about 70 people from staging a 10-minute silent protest outside the university administration building midday Thursday. Many were motivated by concerns for the LGBTQ community at Kennesaw State because Olens as attorney general waged court battles to defend Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage and block an Obama administration directive on transgender bathroom rights; an anti-Olens online petition before the regents’ decision focused on LGBTQ concerns.
But Olens said he has never publicly expressed a personal opinion on those issues.
“My job is to represent the state. That’s what I’ve done,” Olens told the AJT. “As far as being university president, there’s nothing more important in that capacity than the safety and protection of the students. The universities are there for the students. The point’s gonna be made loud and clear that my job is to do everything I can to ensure their success, and that doesn’t impinge on any type of political beliefs. That doesn’t come into the equation.”
But Olens, in his post-selection media tour, hasn't detailed his personal positions on LGBT issues or explained how they might differ from the anti-LGBT arguments he made as attorney general. He's had plenty of opportunities to disavow mocking LGBT couples who want to marry and warning the U.S. Supreme Court to keep its nose out of same-sex marriage or risk doing "incalculable damage to our civic life in this country." Olens also called the federal guidelines on the treatment of transgender students "another example of the President’s unconstitutional overreach." When LGBT activists wanted to meet with Olens to discuss his gay marriage fight, he refused.
LGBT leaders hope that Olens moves quickly to show that he will support LGBT students at KSU. Via the Georgia Voice:
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.”
Graham points to the work of Olens and Deal in making the transition to gay marriage smooth in Georgia once the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it in 2015. That, Graham told the AJC, gets him the benefit of the doubt.
Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham said he understands the concerns of many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students about Olens. He noted, though, that Olens kept his word to ensure Georgia courts didn’t impose obstacles to same-sex couples marrying after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing such unions.
“If he becomes the president of KSU,” Graham said. “I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he will protect the rights of students, especially LGBT students, with the dignity and respect that they deserve from the president.”