Last spring when my younger son was picking a college, we went to a gathering in Decatur for students accepted to the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Caleb found himself chatting with a friendly man who talked about the strong academics, the internship opportunities, the campus construction and more. After perhaps 15 minutes, Caleb asked the man what he does at UAH.
“I’m the president,” Robert Altenkirch said.
As interactions with university presidents go, it was about as positive as they get. It’s not the reason Caleb chose UAH, but it didn’t hurt.
It’s also a dramatic contrast to the presidential interactions at my alma mater.
During my sophomore year at Tulane, we at the student newspaper waged a sustained campaign against President Eamon Kelly over $75. Every full-time student was charged that amount as a fee for using the new student recreation center in the fall semester, but, other than a swimming pool, the rec center didn’t actually open until the spring.
Things got ugly:
- Kelly mocked the demands for a refund.
- I wrote an editorial calling him a thief.
- He called the newspaper office and unleashed his fury on my future wife in a way no administrator should ever speak to a 19-year-old student.
- I fell in love with poking at those in power with a purpose and decided to become a newspaperman.
The punchline: We were devoted, donating alumni until Kelly’s successor, Scott Cowen, killed our love for Tulane in a dispute in which Kelly’s wife and my wife worked together.
The point is that, despite my idea of a university president as someone far removed from the lives of mere students, the man or woman in the high ivory tower can make a real difference, for good or bad. So it makes sense that students at Kennesaw State would view with apprehension the appointment of a lawyer who has been immersed in electoral politics the past 18 years and has no college administrative experience.
If I were part of the LGBTQ community, I would be fearful that Olens’ legal actions as attorney general reflected his personal beliefs rather than his job responsibilities. But I have never heard anything from Olens to indicate he is an LGBTQ foe.
It would have been politically smart for Olens to have dragged his feet on complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage last year and to have aligned himself with people like state Sen. Josh McKoon who were pushing for legalized discrimination under the banner of religious liberty.
Olens would have shored up his support among the dominant conservatives in Georgia’s Republican Party and improved his chances of winning the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2018 and of becoming this state’s first Jewish governor.
Instead, Olens ensured that all Georgia public officials involved with marriage knew that if the court overturned the marriage ban, they should follow the ruling immediately. And I have to believe that when Gov. Nathan Deal was criticizing and ultimately vetoing the religious liberty legislation, Olens was providing advice strengthening Deal’s resolve.
The irony of Olens’ being under LGBTQ attack is that his choice to become Kennesaw State president means he’s giving up on becoming governor — perhaps because he has judged that he has little hope after rejecting the religious liberty Republicans who are the real threat to LGBTQ rights.