Lucas Carpenter is the Candler Professor Emeritus of English at Oxford College of Emory University. In this column, he assails the appointment of former Attorney General Sam Olens as president of Kennesaw State University, a political choice by the governor that has riled some students and faculty. (A petition calling for a national search for the KSU president garnered 16,599 signatures as of Monday night.)
During his 30 years at Oxford, Carpenter won the Fleming Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Emory Williams Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Phi Theta Kappa Teaching Award. He was named a Fulbright Distinguished Senior Scholar in 1999, and in 2003 he was awarded Emory University’s Scholar/Teacher of the Year award. He was also Oxford’s first faculty member to be named Charles Howard Candler Professor. A Vietnam War veteran, Carpenter earned a Bronze Star.
By Lucas Carpenter
One important but little-mentioned aspect of Sam Olens’ recent appointment as president of Kennesaw State University by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents is how it plays into a larger Republican effort to control and influence higher education in America.
Republicans have long maligned American colleges and universities as bastions of liberalism that preach political correctness, climate change, evolution, and socialism. They also fear that the emphasis on critical thinking– one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education–will make students lose faith in their religion and undermine many of the beliefs and practices of political conservatism.
Instances of this national offensive on higher education abound, but two recent examples in South and North Carolina effectively illustrate it.
First of all, in 2014 the Republican dominated Board of Trustees of the venerable College of Charleston overruled the recommendations of a committee tasked with conducting a national search for a new college president. Over the objections of many faculty, students, and alumni, the trustees appointed former South Carolina Lieutenant Gov. Glenn W. McConnell as the new president.
His appointment was opposed because of the lack of transparency in his selection, the fact that, like Olens, he has no experience in higher education, and because McConnell is a self-styled Neo-Confederate who led the fight in the state Legislature to keep the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol. He is also known for his propensity for dressing as a Confederate general during historical recreations as well as on other occasions, and for his far right-wing brand of conservatism.
Likewise, in 2015 the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors, composed largely of Republicans, conducted a highly secretive and chaotic search to replace the highly regarded Tom Ross, who had recently been fired by the Board for no apparent reason other than vacating the office for a Republican appointee. The search yielded up only one candidate, former George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, best known for her employment by for-profit colleges and a student loan collection agency and for her perceived anti-LGBT agenda, exemplified by her attempt to prevent PBS from airing a cartoon portraying a same-sex couple.
And like Olens, her appointment continues to be opposed by faculty and students, both for its lack of transparency and for her LGBT beliefs, which Olens seems to share based on his record as attorney general. However, she enjoys the full support of Gov. Pat McCrory (he of “bathroom bill” fame) who has slashed the budget for the university system and sees no problem with privatizing higher education. He also doesn’t want students wasting their money on courses that don’t lead directly to employment. According to McCrory, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
The controversial appointment of Sam Olens as KSU president should be seen in light of these examples of Republican interference with higher education, to which it bears striking similarities. Increasing control of higher education may not be written into the Republican agenda, but in this case actions do speak louder than words.