New Day for KSU
A conversation with Kennesaw State President Sam Olens
After serving as Georgia’s attorney general for the past six years, Sam Olens was selected by the Georgia Board of Regents to lead Kennesaw State University as its fourth president, on Nov. 1. As 2017 began, Olens shared with Kennesaw State University Magazine his thoughts about the state of the University and his plans for the future.
Since taking the reins of leadership and becoming president, what has impressed you the most about Kennesaw State?
Sam Olens: There are so many positive things happeningat KSU but what has impressed me the most is the “can-do” attitude of the faculty, staff and students on both campuses. No one is complacent. Often in organizations, there’s a period of complacency – especially when you’ve had the type of growth Kennesaw State has – but here there’s a desire for improvement, a desire to maximize the experience for everyone, and you don’t see that in every organizational structure. Or you don’t see it in most.
What do you see as some of Kennesaw State’s greatest opportunities?
Olens: Certainly one of our greatest opportunities are the partnerships we have developed both internally and externally.Since the consolidation with Southern Polytechnic, we have been working on developing degree programs that involve multiple colleges such as our new bachelor’s in digital animation, and you’re going to see much more of that over the next decade. I think we are being really creative in providing opportunities for our students through these types of degree programs, and that will serve them very well in the future.
We’ve also been ramping up our external partnerships such as our involvement with IgniteHQ, a startup incubator and business accelerator, which is already serving our students and the community.
But frankly, there’s a lot going on here at every level and all of them provide opportunities for our faculty, staff, students and the community. I truly believe the sky’s the limit and this University is on the precipice of greatness.
What are some areas you plan to focus in the immediate future?
Olens: First and foremost, scholarships. We need a significant increase in needs-based scholarships, scholarships for firstgeneration college students, scholarships to recruit female STEM students on the Marietta campus, and scholarships to fund a vibrant Honors College. Another area I have been and plan to continue to focus on is reaching out to employers. I’ve been working with our Career Services group and meeting with companies to stimulate more internships, co-ops and recruitment opportunities. One firm told me the graduates they have hired in the past two years are excellent. And they want to increase the number of graduates from Kennesaw State. This speaks well for our students and it also speaks well for the academic side of the house. A couple of years ago several of those companies said we needed more soft skills, which is a common criticism given to many universities. They are now telling us that we’ve done a much better job in that area, and it shows in our graduates.
What’s been your administrative focus during your first 100 days?
Olens: I’ve been spending a lot of time creating a really strong leadership team. We have filled several key positions already, and we’ll have other positions filled during the spring semester with new deans and other administrative roles. One of our strengths is that we have a lot of talent here so I see a lot of opportunity for advancement within. We simply need to put the individuals in the right place, and they will help lead us to our potential.
As you have met with people both on campus and in the community, where are some of the biggest challenges?
Olens: Clearly, we have some significant infrastructure issues. We need more faculty, more advisors, more classrooms, more residence halls. We have not been able to keep up with the growth. I think part of that will be handled through the recent agreement with the chancellor’s office to have a fixed-seat incoming freshman model for fiscal year 2018, where we’ll have early admission and a wait-list to assist us with enrollment management. We greatly need that to catch up with that growth for both campuses.
Prior to being elected attorney general, you served as chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. What did you learn in these leadership positions that has prepared you to be president of Kennesaw State University?
Olens: Leaders have to listen. They have to listen well. They need to seek to constantly learn. There’s a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., to that point: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Because when you’re listening, you’re learning. You also need to be willing to make the hard call, the tough decision.
You are known for being pragmatic in your approach to managing organizations that you lead and improving their performance. What is your long-term strategic vision for the University and your highest priority goals for the next few years?
Olens: When I was attorney general, it was very reactive. A long timeframe was maybe two years. Higher education is a bit more similar to the role I had as chair of Cobb County. I get to look at that 5-10 year timeframe. So, one of the goals is really putting in place the strategic plan for the University, the master plan for the University so that we know where we're going to put future buildings, how we’re going to handle problems like parking in the future and how we’re going to handle the success from our growth, which will lead to an even greater University.
You’ve said you are studying and listening to students, faculty and staff to try to implement best practices. Can you share some of what you’ve learned?
Olens: It’s interesting when you talk to folks and say you’re interested, for instance, in eliminating redundancies, they will immediately tell you where they think they are. You just have to ask the question. So, I’ve asked the questions and I have gotten the answers. Many people are surprised I’m even asking. Also, we’re not a one-size-fits-all organization. So what works in one college may not work in another college. Similarly, we have outstanding teaching faculty and outstanding research faculty. Together, their individual strengths make us a much stronger and better university.
Outside of your family, what has been your greatest accomplishment?
Olens: I’m not big into personal accomplishments; everything takes a team. You don’t succeed by yourself. I think the accomplishment is when you help people along the way and you watch them succeed. As attorney general, I’ve relied on a lot of great lawyers. As chairman of the Cobb County Commission, I relied on a lot of great staff and my fellow commissioners, and as president of this University I’ve got to rely on the students, the staff and the faculty. You’re not a success due to what you did; it’s what everyone does together.
What do you think you’ll enjoy the most as president of Kennesaw State?
Olens: The ability to make a difference, especially for young people. That’s why I was interested in issues such as food insecurity, drug abuse and sex trafficking as attorney general. This is a position unlike many others, where you can actually make a difference with young people and where you can lead, along with the faculty and staff, to really improve someone’s life in the long term.
Down the road, I would like to co-teach a course in the area of the Constitution or local government, consistent with my past opportunities. So I want to spend some energy there.
If you had not become a lawyer, what would you be doing today?
Olens: I would have become a professor of international affairs.
What would you like your legacy to be either at KSU or for your life in general?
Olens: I would simply like for folks to know I worked hard and tried my best. That’s all that you can ask.
– Robert S. Godlewski
Photos by Lauren Lopez de Azua and David Caselli
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the second-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 126 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.