Michael Leven

Michael LevenMichael A. Leven, the former Las Vegas hospitality titan and current Georgia Aquarium chairman and CEO, sees potential in one of Kennesaw State University’s newest programs, and he’s going all in.

Leven will not only share his considerable knowledge in the field of hospitality with Kennesaw State students, but also his name. He was on hand with family and friends Wednesday morning at the naming ceremony for the Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality held in the indoor plaza of the Prillaman Health Sciences Building.

Leven's $5 million gift to the university is the largest single contribution from an individual in KSU’s 52-year history. His generosity will not only support the operations of the new school, but also fund an endowed faculty chair and scholarships for students.

“They’ve got a great program going,” Leven said. “It’s only two years old. It’s still starting to get some name recognition. I think, having been in the business 54 years, maybe my name will help them a little bit. I don’t think they need the help in teaching. They’ve got plenty of that.

“If this gives them the kind of publicity to get more demand for it, I think it’s going to grow. Because the opportunities for young people in the tourism and hospitality and food industry is enormous. And I like the idea that they are integrated with the other schools where they can learn humanities, and science and technology. I think we’ll put out some great graduates, and the industry will want to have them.”

Christian Hardigree, the director of the new school — which will also be moving from the WellStar College of Health and Human Services to University College — said Leven’s generosity will have a significant impact.

“(Leven’s) commitment to our program means we’re into a whole new game,” Hardigree said. “A total game changer for what it does for our students and for the industry. The payoff isn’t for me. It isn’t for KSU. It’s for our students and how it prepares them for their future careers.”

Because the program began so modestly, Hardigree had no idea what to expect when it was approved in April 2013.

“We thought we would get anywhere from 30 to 50 students because we had such a short period of time to promote the program,” Hardigree said.

It had 210 students enrolled for the fall 2013 semester; then 575 in spring 2014 and 1,157 in fall 2014.

“It illustrates that the attraction of the program is beyond majors,” Hardigree said. “Nursing students want to take our nutrition classes. Business students may want to take a wine class for networking purposes. We had a nursing student take our professional development course. It becomes sort of a draw from all over.”

To further illustrate that, the program will have its first three Bachelor of Science in Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality graduates this summer. Abshul Ellis, one of the program’s original students, is in the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality. Kristi Ellis (no relation) and William “Doug” Landrum round out the first graduating class.