Coles, Radow, and Leven Help Shape KSU Growth
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Coles, Radow, and Leven Help Shape KSU Growth

Over the last 35 years, major gifts by Michael Coles, Norman Radow, and Mike Leven have contributed to Kennesaw State University’s rapid development.

Propelled in part by philanthropic gifts from Atlanta’s Jewish community, Kennesaw has grown to be the second largest university in Georgia.
Propelled in part by philanthropic gifts from Atlanta’s Jewish community, Kennesaw has grown to be the second largest university in Georgia.

When Mike Leven was growing up in the Jewish community in Boston, he was regularly encouraged to put his pennies and nickels in the little blue box that sat on the windowsill in the family’s modest apartment home. Every Friday, it was picked up and another box and another week of contributions began.

From that small start, Leven credits a lifetime of philanthropy that culminated in a gift eight years ago to Kennesaw State University to expand its School of Management, Entrepreneurship and Hospitality. The $5 million contribution, which was made in 2015, was, at the time, the largest single contribution from an individual in the university’s history.

But Leven, who spent his entire 54-year career as the CEO of some of the largest hotel chains in the country, saw it as just another consequence of the habit his family drilled into him.

Mike Leven’s $5 million dollar gift in 2015 was an important milestone in the legacy of Jewish giving at Kennesaw State University.

“I learned as a kid this basic thing about philanthropy, using some of what you had even if it wasn’t much, to allow other good things to happen. I like to do stuff, where I think I can make a difference.”

In the few short years since Leven endowed the school that was named in his honor, the entrepreneurship and hospitality program at Kennesaw has grown 10 times in size, from some 30 majors back then to more than 300 today.

But Leven’s interest in the university was just one example of a long line of accomplishments and philanthropic gifts that Jewish donors have made to the school that has grown exponentially over the past three decades.

The program that Leven’s gift helped to endow is housed in the Coles College of Business, named after Michael Coles, the hard driving entrepreneur who started his career selling men’s clothing in Miami. He founded the Great American Cookie Company at Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody in 1977 and built it into one of the most successful independent food franchising businesses in America. His gift in 1994 was the first seven-figure contribution that the university had ever received.

The Coles College of Business was named for Michael Coles, who made the first seven-figure gift to the university in 1994.

Coles’ 35-year philanthropic journey, which includes his long-term, dynamic leadership of the state’s Hillel organization and his pioneering work in the state’s film industry, began with the lessons he says he learned as a Kennesaw trustee and, later, the chair of that governing body.

“I would say that more than anything, I learned how to work in a nonprofit world to create visionary leadership and getting putting people on our board that would share the vision. I would say that I’ve been very fortunate to have led some very strong nonprofit organizations. And I would say in every single one of them it took the work of the board to do it.”

In 1998, Coles was joined by another philanthropic leader, Norman Radow, a highly successful real estate investor who, like Leven and Coles, had come from modest means. He was born and raised in Brooklyn before coming to Atlanta and his voice still retains a trace of his New York accent.

It was in the fundraising innovations that he brought to Kennesaw in partnership with Coles, Leven and others that laid the groundwork for Kennesaw’s great leap forward in the opening decades of the 21st century. Under his leadership, KSU changed from a commuter school to a school with a large resident student population and a full-fledged center for academic research. The vehicle for that growth, as Radow is quick to point out, has been the privately financed Kennesaw University Foundation, which he chaired for four years.

“The foundation helped build thousands of student beds. We built parking decks, we built a dining hall, a sports park, and a football stadium. We doubled the size of the physical size of the landmass of campus. We developed $600 million of real estate infrastructure.”

Norman Radow’s $7 million gift in 2020 was the largest individual gift in the university’s history.

To top it off, in 2020, Radow and his wife, Lindy, donated $9 million to Kennesaw’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which set a new record for individual giving. The college was renamed in his honor.

Over the years, these major gifts, along with the work done by other Atlanta contributors like Joel Katz, Barry Hyman, Steven Cadranel and Harry Maziar, has helped build Kennesaw State into a major academic powerhouse. Kennesaw president Kathy Schwaig expressed the university’s grateful appreciation.

“The support and leadership we have received at Kennesaw State from Norman Radow, Michael Leven, and Michael Coles has been nothing short of transformational. Their generosity has helped make KSU what it is today.”

Working together, these three friends and fellow philanthropists helped Kennesaw grow eight-fold in the last 35 years. It now has 43,000 students, making it the second largest university in Georgia. This year’s freshman class is the largest in the state.

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