Weathering a Presidential Pseudo-Search

Politics and presidential appointments in higher education.
By Andrew Pieper

In recent years, assaults on higher education have come from every direction. From decreases in Pell Grants to the dismantling of tenure in Wisconsin, from professor watch lists to cuts in federal research grants and state funding, the very idea of public higher education is under assault. Another recent trend eroding the principles of academic freedom and faculty governance is the appointment of nonacademics to lead colleges and universities. At Kennesaw State University, a public institution in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Sam Olens, most recently attorney general of Georgia, assumed the presidency on November 1, 2016. His appointment encapsulates this recent trend and provides a case study for how such appointments will likely play out over the coming years. The KSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors played an active role in opposing the violations of academic governance that occurred during the presidential appointment process. Our experiences may provide a lesson for those AAUP chapters and other faculty bodies that will inevitably face further violations of governance norms.

A Nontraditional Appointment

Kennesaw State is a mostly commuter school that has been recently upgraded to an R3 Carnegie institution (meaning that it awards more than twenty doctorate degrees and conducts “moderate” research) and has been the fastest-growing institution in the University System of Georgia. Established in the 1960s as a junior college, KSU grew quickly along with the metro Atlanta region. Much of its growth—which was largely unfunded by the state legislature—occurred under longtime president Betty Siegel (1981–2006), who cultivated tight community ties. Daniel Papp took over as president in 2006 and pursued an expansion of graduate programs and research expectations. In 2006, KSU had fewer than twenty thousand students. By 2015, following tremendous growth and a forced consolidation with Southern Polytechnic State University (now known as the Kennesaw State Marietta Campus), KSU had more than thirty-five thousand students, nearly three thousand of whom were graduate students. Kennesaw State benefited from the growth of Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship program, which is designed to encourage high-achieving residents to pursue higher education within the state, but that growth occurred at a greater rate than state funding. Although it is now nearly as large as the flagship University of Georgia, KSU holds little political sway in battles for recognition and funding in the state capitol. It sometimes still suffers from its recent history as a junior college, which shapes the perceptions of legislative leaders who disproportionately received their degrees from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

The night prior to graduation in May 2016, Papp shocked the campus community by announcing by e-mail that he was resigning, effective July 1, 2016. He gave no specific explanation for the decision, but it quickly became apparent that the university system had been investigating him for financial irregularities regarding his compensation and that some components of the university’s facilities (especially dining services) suffered from severe mismanagement, even outright corruption.

As the president of the AAUP chapter, I contacted our executive committee, and we immediately mobilized and argued to our colleagues that we needed to be vigilant about this presidential vacancy. Many of us viewed KSU as ripe for the sort of political appointments that had recently struck the University of North Carolina system, Purdue University, and the University of Iowa, among others. Of course, politicians such as Bob Kerrey, Billy Bulger, and Dwight Eisenhower have been appointed as university presidents in the past, but the trend has accelerated rapidly in the last decade in both public and private institutions. We worried that KSU was at a vital juncture and needed experienced academic leadership as faculty and staff morale had been declining in the face of unfinanced growth and a difficult consolidation. Kennesaw State has been a success story over the last decade, but it has struggled to adjust to postrecession budget cuts, exploding enrollment, and programmatic expansion.

Faculty leaders on campus recognized early the potential for a nontraditional president. Our AAUP chapter focused its concern primarily on the process for selecting a new president, and on May 23 we sent a letter, coauthored with the faculty senate president, to the president of the board of regents (a body composed of political appointees of the governor that oversees the university system) requesting a traditional national search. In the letter, we emphasized the written policies and norm of national searches within the university system, noting that the last eighteen presidential appointments resulted from either national searches or hiring of interim presidents.

Within days, local media began speculating that Sam Olens, then Georgia attorney general and formerly commission chair of Cobb County (within which KSU is located), was being promoted by state and local leaders as a candidate for KSU president. Faculty senate president Humayun Zafar sent a follow-up e-mail to KSU’s interim president and provost on September 2, 2016, requesting formal updates about the status of the presidential search, and six days later I sent a letter to the board of regents explicitly warning against the appointment of Sam Olens without a formal search, highlighting Zafar’s e-mail and noting that such an appointment would be perceived around the country as politically motivated and would likely damage KSU’s reputation. On September 16, 2016, the three letters (which were publicly available to all faculty but not distributed to the media) were published on the political blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Zafar, state AAUP leaders, and I were quoted expressing dismay that such an appointment would be made without a search. The following day, the Marietta Daily Journal published an editorial disparaging the faculty and students who opposed Olens’s appointment. By this point, faculty, alumni, and students were fully aware that Olens’s appointment was imminent—despite complete silence from the university system and the board about any search—and began mobilizing to oppose it.

The board announced on October 3, 2016, that Sam Olens had indeed been named the single finalist in a search that had never been announced and that he would interview with the board in executive session the following day. Other actors began protesting, arguing that his positions on LGBTQ laws and his participation in lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and federal rules regarding transgender bathrooms, combined with his lack of academic experience, made him unqualified to lead an institution that had become well-known for its diversity. The AAUP chapter, for its part, still opposed his appointment without a formal search, but after deliberation and a poll of our members, we determined that our interests would best be served by preparing for his eventual appointment (which came on October 12, 2016).

There can be no doubt that political appointments are enticing to officeholders in elected positions of power. Proponents of such appointments contend that political appointees have valuable connections, the ability to raise money, and experience in administering large organizations. It will be years, of course, before we can judge the Sam Olens presidency. It is possible that, in spite of the politicized nature of his appointment, his presidency will be marked by respect for academic freedom, shared governance, and diversity and rational allocation of resources for quality higher education at KSU. Only time will tell.

Lessons from KSU

Faculty at institutions facing presidential vacancies, especially those in states with centralized systems and politicized governing bodies, can learn from our experience at KSU.

1. Think about your strategy in advance. If you think this can’t happen to you, you’re fooling yourselves. The stakes are too high, and the cultural minefields too great (a tip for those of you involved in these battles: don’t read the comments sections of your newspapers) for policy makers and political actors to remain on the sidelines and let professional academics do their jobs. So, faculty leaders should prepare continuously for a presidential vacancy. Who will write letters? To whom will they be sent? At KSU, our options were limited. Our chapter is not formally part of the academic governance structure, KSU is not unionized, and we exist in a conservative area with influential local media and politicians hostile to the norms of faculty governance. It will be helpful to know in advance the specific rules governing presidential appointments. In our case many faculty members assumed that a national search was required, when in fact the system bylaws allow the board to appoint a president without such a process.

2. Get on the same page, and fast. It is helpful to have communication across campus constituencies. If your institution has various governance bodies, ensure that you have working relationships to share information, discuss approaches, and strategize about responses. The AAUP chapter, faculty senate (or similar body), student government, alumni association, staff senate, and other organizations can have a larger impact together than they can alone. Brainstorm about influential and powerful individuals who are supportive of your views and could advocate on your behalf. It might be helpful to form a committee that will coordinate with these constituencies and communicate about options and decisions. In our case, the vacancy occurred during the summer, and some faculty bodies were essentially dormant or (incorrectly) believed that nothing would happen until fall. The deliberative nature of faculty governance can sometimes be a hindrance to effective coordination, but such obstacles must be overcome in circumstances that present such an extreme affront to the norms of academic governance. It would also be appropriate to contact your state conference (if one exists) and the national AAUP office to understand how they might help respond to such circumstances, and you might consider consulting and coordinating with other chapters from public and private institutions that could provide support, ideas, and protection from political pressures.

3. Or, don’t get on the same page. Some campus leaders (like me) are tied to norms, to procedures, to relationships cultivated over years—quite frankly, to the status quo. We tend to be cautious, pragmatic, and bound to networks that may promote inaction. When the KSU AAUP chapter held an open faculty forum about how to respond to Olens’s possible appointment, we had varying opinions. Only fifty faculty members showed up—from a faculty numbering over 1,200—to discuss one of the most direct threats to our values we had seen in over a decade. Although most attendees opposed Olens’s appointment on both procedural and substantive grounds, the general conclusion at that forum was that we should accept Olens’s appointment and work to ensure that our principles, which had been ignored in his selection, were embraced by his administration. Others, however, fought on. Alumni filed petitions, students and faculty members protested, and lawsuits were even brought, all without the formal participation of the AAUP chapter. Although our membership was sympathetic with these actions, it voted against joining them. But these actions maintained a sense of immediacy, and in other circumstances might well have proved decisive. Depending on your circumstances, you might find that multiple approaches suit your needs well, or that your AAUP chapter is the appropriate body through which to channel direct action.

4. Forge a relationship with the media. From the first whispers of the possibility of a political appointment (including our May 23 letter), chapter members asked me if I would go to the media. The letters that I and other faculty leaders sent were not secret, but I did not forward them to the media. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. However, our precarious position as nonunionized faculty in a state controlled largely by one political party meant that media relations contained great risks, both personally and professionally. When a reporter from the Journal-Constitution called me to comment on our letters, I froze. I had not sought a public confrontation. Other leaders, including rank-and-file chapter members, sought out media coverage, writing articles and op-eds with eloquent statements. They spoke of their own volition. As chapter president, I did not view it as my role to do so without authorization from our membership. Strong media allies might have helped our cause. But the media seemed more interested in the political machinations behind the appointment than in the merits of the appointment itself. The local newspaper (the Marietta Daily Journal) was a supporter of Olens from his time as county commission chair and has deep-seated hostility toward the academic class in its suburban midst. The Journal-Constitution confirmed our suspicions about the origins of an Olens appointment, but it was far more concerned with the impact on state-level politics (especially who would be the next attorney general) than it was with the qualifications of the next president of the second-largest university in Georgia. In the right circumstances the media may be your friend. But I would argue that if they are only neutral, they will serve the interests of the powerful.

5. Get help from other actors. Faculty are not universally viewed through a sympathetic lens. A Marietta Daily Journal column described us as a group “composed of tenured professors who can say and do whatever radical thing they want without fear of termination.” Even more difficult, especially in institutions that do not have union representation, is that few avenues of substantive protest exist in which faculty can engage that do not harm students. Talks of faculty walkouts and withholding letters of recommendation are public-relations killers that harm only those we aim to protect: students. As much as possible, find sympathetic leaders from the community who can make cogent arguments for process over politics. Foundation and business leaders and prominent university supporters and benefactors will have far greater sway over politically motivated policy makers—not to mention headline-happy media outlets— than will faculty leaders. Organize and cultivate these relationships in advance, because events will move faster than relationship-building allows. The formal process for the selection of Olens as president lasted only nine days.

6. Advocate for specific procedures free from political influence. Start now! Learn the rules for your institution and your system. Who actually has the authority to appoint a president or chancellor? Are there exceptions to the norm? How can the rules be changed? Is your process as protected as you believe it is? Review the fine print of your search and appointment procedures and work now to change them instead of having to learn painful lessons when it is too late.


Events at KSU, in the University of North Carolina system, and elsewhere reveal that academic governance is an increasingly political process. Faculty searches tend to operate in an intentional manner that values input, evidence collection, multiple interviews, and a relatively open and deliberative process that emphasizes quality over swiftness. We in academia tend to approach governance like rivers pursue the ocean— using the natural terrain, following the path of least resistance, carving rock over long periods, working to reach our goals in (relative) harmony with the other actors around us. Politics, as we know, operates in a different world, where tweets, cable-news scrolls, and unsubstantiated rumors quickly become “fact,” often without careful deliberation. Politically motivated actors, if they have access to the levers of power, will use them swiftly and efficiently. They use power like a flash flood—overpowering existing barriers, pummeling dams in their way, and ripping away boulders and sandbags alike without concern for the damage they leave in their wake. Like flash floods, their terms are finite (elections are always approaching!) and will recede, but you must be prepared for the onslaught or it will sweep away your norms and processes too. We at KSU made the mistake of assuming that the norms of the river remained. I urge you to learn from our experiences and prepare for the flash floods that are coming.     

Andrew Pieper is associate professor of political science and undergraduate coordinator of the political science program at Kennesaw State University. He has served on the executive committee of the Kennesaw State AAUP chapter since 2010 and is currently serving a two-year term as chapter president. His e-mail address is [email protected].