Former Georgia Attorney General turned Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens seems to have successfully dodged questions about his anti-LGBT past – at least for now.
Olens, who took over as KSU president on Nov. 1, came under fire from students and staff alike for his anti-LGBT history as the state's Attorney General. His work included defending the state’s same-sex marriage ban and joining with other states to sue the federal government to block protections for transgender students.
On both fronts, Olens has repeatedly told media outlets, “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.”
In an interview with the Sentinel, KSU's student paper, Olens continued with that argument – despite the fact that the anti-transgender lawsuit was not in defense of any state law.
“There’s a group of faculty and students that dislike the fact that I defended state law, but that’s my job,” Olens said. “I think the far more important part is that, when the Supreme Court ruled that the state law wasn’t constitutional, then I immediately got in fifth gear and told everyone to follow the law.”
He explained that he feels like he is being persecuted for doing what he was supposed to do.
“I feel frustrated because, as the state’s lawyer, it’s my job to defend state law,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I agree with it or don’t agree with it. It means I’m following my oath of office.”
In a Nov. 7 interview with the Cobb Business Journal, Olens continued with the claim that his anti-LGBT work was part of his job as the state's top lawyer.
Q: Some of the student groups, particularly the LGBT community, had specific concerns about some of the things that you worked on as AG. What would you say to them to alleviate their concerns? Some of them are worried that some of the programs that advocate for them might be cut or things like that. What would you say to them?
A: So once again, I’ll answer that numerous ways. Number one, I’m the state’s lawyer. It’s my job to defend state law. That’s not a personal issue, it’s not a personal response. It’s my oath of office. Interestingly enough, a month before the Obergefell decision came out (that guaranteed the right to marry for same-sex couples), I had a talk with the Atlanta Press Club. And the first question was, ‘What are you going to do if the Supreme Court rules that state constitutional amendments, etc. are unconstitutional?’ I said, ‘We’re going to follow the law.’ You would have thought that was breaking news: ‘Lawyer follows the law.’ The next day, (WABE reporter) Denis O’Hayer went up to the governor and said, ‘You know, your attorney general said if the Supreme Court rules against the state, he’s going to tell all the state agencies to follow the law.’ And the governor said, ‘Yes, that’s what lawyers do.’
So I would ask them to differentiate my current job and the responsibilities I have with the new job, which is frankly most important, the safety and protection and success of the students. So the concerns that have been expressed, I will tell you, are 100 percent in error. There are no actions I plan on taking that should concern any group of students on this campus. The role of the president is to make sure that all students, that all peoples have a great experience on this campus and that they succeed. So concerns about funding and other programs are totally misplaced. And I think it be correct to assume that when I met with the SGA president, I specifically referenced meetings with some of those groups that are concerned. I would note that Jeff Graham, who’s the head of (LGBT-activist organization) Georgia Equality, doesn’t share those concerns. And Jeff is who we worked with principally to make sure the probate judges promptly and conclusively followed the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Obergefell decision.
Olens has repeatedly said in interviews that his anti-LGBT work as Attorney General didn't necessarily match his personal views on LGBT issues. But, despite given the platform to expand on his personal views, he's refused to do so.
But Olens did try to calm the fears of KSU students worried that he would pick apart support for the school's LGBTQ student center.
“There will be zero changes in those areas,” Olens told the Sentinel. “And frankly, I wish one of the leaders would have emailed me … I would’ve then had the opportunity to respond and say, ‘Of course not.’”
Although some groups – like the Alumni Association and Chabad – welcomed Olens with messages on social media, not everyone has been convinced they need to give Olens a chance.
After a student government meeting last week, during which Olens spoke, one student posted his dismay to Concerned Students of Kennesaw State University, which is a Facebook page created to opposed Olens' appointment.
“No one is under any obligation to give Sam Olens the benefit of a doubt on anything,” Josh Hanselman wrote. “He is under every obligation to actively prove that his past (which he claimed repeatedly tonight to be very proud of) will have no bearing whatsoever on his future.”
Critics of Olens' appointment also expressed concerns that he was purely a political appointee and was the only candidate considered for the job at the expense of more qualified candidates. That prompted a legal challenge to Olens’ appointment.
But earlier this month a judge tossed out the lawsuit – ruling that state law prevented it – without ruling on the merits of the claim.
“The Georgia Constitution expressly preserves the state’s sovereign immunity and makes clear that it ‘can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that sovereign immunity is waived and the extent of such waiver,’” Fulton Superior Court Judge Tom Campbell said in his ruling.
The selection process for Olens at KSU stands in sharp contrast to one folding at Valdosta State University, which is currently searching for a new president. Four finalists, selected by the Board of Regents, must go through interviews, campus tours, and forums with students, faculty and staff. Olens was appointed after one meeting with the board and with no student or faculty input.
As Project Q previously reported, Olens said his new role comes with new priorities.
“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.”
But the board has a fairly conservative history – only offering health insurance benefits to the partners of LGBT employees after being forced to by the U.S. Supreme Court, for exampled. It's also embroiled in a lawsuit over the refusal to admit undocumented students to the state’s top universities. So if the board doesn't adequately protect LGBTQ students on campus, Olens will be left with the same question he faced as Attorney General – stand up for LGBT people against discriminatory policy or follow the rules because that’s his job?