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Hello, my name is … Christian Hardigree

The founding dean of the School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism shares the values that have made her a successful student, student-athlete, litigator and educator.

By Cora Zaletel

June 3, 2019

Christian HardigreeChristian Hardigree, J.D., founding dean of the School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism, is driven, tenacious, hardworking and always ready for a new challenge. Raised in rural Georgia by parents from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds, Hardigree learned early on to believe in the transformative power of education and hard work. These values have made her a successful student, student-athlete, litigator and educator — and a wonderful new addition to the Roadrunner family. Here, she shares the childhood lessons, educational experiences and professional journey that led her to Metropolitan State University of Denver.

How did your upbringing help build your leadership skills?

Both of my parents made me feel I could do anything. My mother was a privileged former debutante, and my father was a first-generation student who flunked out of college — twice. Mom, a social worker, was the primary breadwinner and a great role model; Dad was a perpetual graduate student. Education became his empowerment mechanism — as well as my mother’s unwavering belief that he could accomplish anything with hard work. My junior year of high school, he graduated with his Ph.D. in Risk Management and Insurance. That level of tenacity and grit reinforced in me that education was the pathway to achievement. As a result, I embrace the “struggle.” I expect barriers to be removed through hard work, and I have a nagging sensation that I should be able to do more.

The blending of my family also gave me the perspective that hard work produces results no matter your gender. With a mother shedding the confines of gender stereotyping and a father who probably had hoped for a son, I was raised in a masculine context. I didn’t perceive limitations on the basis of gender. I played junior-high football and high school baseball on the boys teams before Dad made me quit for fear I would be hurt. I went on to play college volleyball and softball on scholarships.

How did you land in hospitality?

As a junior, I transferred to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, which did two things really well: basketball and hotel management. I studied hotel management because I had worked in the industry, had a service mentality and enjoyed making people happy. The program was close to the Strip, so there were many opportunities for hands-on research and employment. I particularly enjoyed hospitality law, and I passed the bar exam at age 25 in order to remain in the hotel sector as in-house counsel for one of the resorts.

The human-resources director at the Mirage told me he had never had a candidate with the practical experience, degree and legal training I had, but he said, “Come back in 10 years because I can’t turn over a $20 million department to a kid.”

Disappointed, I thought that meant I needed to go in a different direction. Influenced by my family’s military background, I applied for and was selected as a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was set to go to Quantico when my dad died, requiring me to reboot and reimagine my life. I began trial litigation and gained experience defending hotels, restaurants and nightclubs all over the Strip on a variety of premise-liability cases.

I also began teaching law part-time at UNLV, and that started my academic pathway. In 2012, Kennesaw State University hired me to start a Culinary and Sustainability Hospitality Program. I secured a $5 million gift to name the program from Michael A. Leven, then president of the Sands Corp. and a hospitality-industry legend, and I served as the director through 2018.

Why MSU Denver?

I was attracted to MSU Denver for a number of reasons — the talented faculty and staff, the exceptional facilities and the opportunity to affect the lives of future industry leaders through innovative, relevant curriculum and experiential learning. At MSU Denver, there is a supportive and collaborative environment, an entrepreneurial spirit and a guiding principle of “do what’s best for the students.” The beauty of being at a young institution is not being entrenched in a historical context of “we’ve always done it this way,” which means being able to pivot easily and be more nimble and innovative. The icing on the cake has been getting to know the amazing women in leadership.

What do you hope to accomplish?

My goal is to offer the most innovative curriculum possible, rooted in high-impact practices, to develop the most competitive “product” on the market: our graduates. I don’t view students as consumers, but rather, the industry is the consumer and the students are the product. The better the product, the more desirable they are, and the more the industry will pay them. Education is about empowerment – we are empowering our students with the knowledge, skills and abilities to be the hospitality leaders of the future.

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