Ken Harmon, Kennesaw State University’s longtime provost who served as interim president the last five months, is returning to the classroom next semester.
The motorcycle riding, blues strumming husband and father of three said he has wanted to step down from his administrative role to spend more time with his family. And now that the Board of Regents has selected Pamela Whitten to head Kennesaw State, Harmon says he has that opportunity.
“From the time they asked me to be interim president I said my plan was to go back to the faculty, so I’m just following through on that,” Harmon said Wednesday as he prepared his syllabus for next semester’s accounting information systems course. In the spring, he plans to take on a second data analytics class.
Harmon, who turns 63 next month, taught an MBA course several years ago and has found himself in the classroom on and off over his 12 years at KSU. He was hired as director of the university’s School of Accountancy in 2006 and named provost four years later.
“I’m ready to go back,” he said. “With this transition going on, it’s the perfect time for me to return to the classroom. It’s very much a personal decision for me and the family.”
Harmon, who regularly takes long-distance motorcycle trips with his best friend, writes music and plays golf, said he’s preached happiness for years but feels its time he took his own advice.
He became interim president in February following former KSU President Sam Olens’ resignation. Olens stepped down after his administration came under fire for its handling of five cheerleaders who kneeled in protest during the playing of the national anthem at home football games last fall.
Linda Noble, KSU’s professor emeritus of psychology and a former administrator at the school, will continue to serve as interim provost, a role she’s held since February. A search for a permanent replacement is expected to begin soon.
As far as the university being thrust into the spotlight over the cheerleader controversy, Harmon called it a “bump in the road,” but said it’s nothing insurmountable.
“I know this university,” he said. “I’ve been here 12 years and things like that will never offset the good story we have to tell. I’ve been at seven institutions in my career and I’ve never seen anything like KSU.”
In just 55 years, Kennesaw State has grown from a junior college to one the nation’s 50 largest public universities, Harmon said.
“We’ve built residence halls that were ranked in the top 10 in the country, we’ve built dining halls that were ranked in the top 10, we have set up innovative programs, started a football team, etc.,” Harmon said, praising the school’s culture. “It’s a place to institute a lot of great stuff. Even though we’re very large, you feel like you are part of a family.”
He said each year, more high school graduates are making Kennesaw their first choice when looking at universities to attend, a trend he expects will continue.
“It’s very much a destination campus and people want to have that experience,” he said. “There’s just a lot to offer here.”
Former KSU President Dan Papp, who started at KSU with Harmon in the summer of 2006, said his former provost could have gone on to lead any number of universities.
He summarized the job Harmon did as provost and vice president of academic affairs in a single word: excellent.
“Ken has been a wonderful provost and, from what I understand, an excellent interim president,” Papp said, calling him a true class-act. “Given everything, I’m surprised he’s not looking for a presidency somewhere, but I understand his decision to step down and go back to the faculty.”
Holding the rank of provost or president of a major university, really eats into precious time that could be spent with family, Papp said.
Jennifer Purcell, associate professor of leadership and president of KSU’s Faculty Senate, said Harmon performed well during an precedented period of growth and change.
“The past few years have been particularly challenging as we navigated consolidation and experienced unfortunate and difficult leadership transitions,” she said. “Consistently, Ken prioritized student success, welcomed difficult conversations and was always willing to listen to concerns.”
Leadership, Purcell said, is in Harmon’s DNA, and he will be missed when he returns to the university’s faculty.
“He's an exceptionally charismatic leader who empowers others to achieve their best,” she said. “…but I imagine he'll continue to mentor and support colleagues and help promote the incredible work underway at KSU.”
As far as the university’s new president, Harmon said he has no doubt Whitten will fit right into her new role and do a fine job heading the university.
“I’ve known Pam since she got to the University of Georgia,” he said. “As fellow provosts, obviously we knew each other. She is very bright, very passionate and one thing I know about Pam is she knows how to get things done. I’m extremely optimistic about her leadership.”
Whitten formally took over as KSU's fifth president Monday and will preside over summer graduation ceremonies next week.
Among the school’s perennial priorities: boosting graduation rates, better serving students and coming up with ways to lower the cost of tuition and fees, said Harmon, who expects the university to continue growing, but probably not as quickly as it has the last half century.