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Who Is Neeli Bendapudi, Penn State’s Next President?

Neeli Bendapudi will become Penn State’s 19th president, in what multiple members of the Board of Trustees on Thursday called a “historic” appointment for the university.

President of the University of Louisville for the past three and a half years, Bendapudi’s appointment as Penn State’s next leader was unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees in a special meeting on Thursday morning at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center.

She will be, as she was at Louisville, the first woman and first person of color to hold Penn State’s highest office.

“Neeli Bendapudi is a values-driven leader with a reputation for integrity and inclusion,” Penn State Board Chair Matthew Schuyler said at a press conference following Bendapudi’s appointment. “She has shown an ability to develop and articulate a clear and compelling vision for success. She has also demonstrated that she can mobilize support and resources for students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors and the broader university community.”

As she succeeds Eric Barron, who previously announced plans to retire at the end of his contract in June 2022, she will also be the first Penn State president with no previous ties to the university since Joab Thomas’s appointment in 1990 — four presidents and more than 30 years ago.

In her 27-year career in academia, however, she’s become acquainted with Penn State and seemed to impress the school’s Presidential Recruitment and Selection Committee with her preparation and enthusiasm for the university.

“Her preparation for every single discussion and meeting that we had with her was impressive,” Trustee Bill Oldsey said. “She.. developed innovative and thoughtful preliminary ideas for how we can soar to even greater heights as a world-class university. I commented to Neeli at one point about her impressive degree to which she had prepared for our discussions. Her response was quick: ‘Bill, it’s Penn State. I’m in this 110%.’… She exudes infectious enthusiasm for Penn State and our future.”

Bendapudi, meanwhile, spoke several times about the Penn State “family,” community and the “We are” spirit.

“Over the years through all of these experiences I heard quite a bit about Penn State’s ‘We are’ are spirit, but I can tell you coming here and seeing it in action, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “The passion, the pride, the genuine warmth that each of you has exhibited I will always cherish. It’s a wonderful feeling to know I’m joining such a special community.”

Her appointment was met with effusive praise from trustees, along with student, faculty, and Alumni Association leaders involved in the presidential search.

“We found Neeli Bendapudi to be an incredibly thoughtful, strategic leader with an inspiring breadth and depth of experiences in academia and research,” Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology and a member of the selection committee, said in a statement. “As an accomplished leader, she will bring a forward-looking perspective to the presidency while remaining grounded in the important connections with our students. The qualities of a 21st-century academic leader — commitments to excellence, equity, and opportunity — are second nature to Dr. Bendapudi.”

“I’m very pleased to say that I believe Dr. Bendapudi will fit right into the Penn State family,” trustee and immediate past president of the Penn State Alumni Association Randy Houston said. “She cares deeply about the history of this institution, and is eager to engage with the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world.”

According to the term sheet for Bendapudi’s employment, from on or before July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2027, she will receive $1.3 million annually — $950,000 in base salary and $350,000 in contributions to a deferred compensation plan — plus a completion payment of $1.25 million at the end of five years, transition payments totaling $200,000 over two years, use of Schreyer House as her residence, 55 hours of personal use of a university jet, a personal vehicle purchased by the university and retirement, health and fringe benefits.

Subcommittee on Compensation Chair Kathleen Casey said the committee’s compensation consultant found the terms to be “reasonable” based on the peer market.

At Louisville, Bendapudi earned $875,000 in base salary under her most recent contract approved by the school’s board this past summer.

Bendapudi’s starting date at Penn State and whether Barron will decide to retire before his contract ends are still to be determined. Schuyler said Bendapudi and Barron would be meeting to discuss the transition.

Born in the city of Vizag on the coast of South India, Bendapudi earned a bachelor’s degree and MBA from Andhra University before moving to the United States and receiving her Ph.D. in marketing at the University of Kansas in 1994.

Bendapudi was a professor of marketing at Texas A&M for two years and Ohio State for 15 years before returning to Kansas in 2011 to become the School of Business dean and a professor of business. From 2016 to 2018 she was provost and executive vice chancellor at Kansas.

In the private sector, Bendapudi spent several years as an executive for Huntington National Bank and has been a consultant for companies and organizations including AIG, Proctor & Gamble, Deloitte, and the U.S. Army. As a researcher, she is widely published in the field of consumer behavior and services.

“Her list of accomplishments, leadership skills, dedication to academia and students, and pioneering contributions speak for themselves,” Schuyler said.

Louisville Presidency

In 2018, Bendapudi was appointed president at Louisville, succeeding James Ramsey, who resigned amid a scandal in which he was accused of mismanaging tens of millions of dollars in university funds.

“Her body of work at the University of Louisville has been superb facing a number of significant challenges, financial and organizational, since her arrival there in 2018,” Oldsey said.

While not without critics and some controversy, Bendapudi’s tenure at Louisville was largely met with praise. After her first year on the job, the school’s board of trustees gave her a $75,000 raise and increased her annual bonus for what one trustee called “an A++ in terms of performance,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

In announcing her new contract earlier this year, Louisville trustees raved about Bendapudi’s performance, with board Chair Mary Nixon calling her a “superb leader.”

During Bendapudi’s tenure, Louisville emerged from the previous leadership scandal with a stabilized budget and improved credit rating. The school set a record of $170 million for research funding and saw its highest enrollment in decades. The UofL Health system strengthened and expanded with key acquisitions. And Louisville attained a substantial rise in national and international university ratings, including a big jump from 538th to 499th in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking.

She has made the drive for student success a hallmark of her administrative career, something University Park Undergraduate Association President Erin Boas, who served on Penn State’s selection committee, said came through strongly in her conversations with Bendapudi.

“Both my personal interactions and the insight provided by her peers have proven to me that Dr. Bendapudi will attempt the impossible for her community, especially when students’ best interests are on the line,” Boas said. “Consider that she doubled need-based aid, bolstered emergency student funds, and committed to making the University of Louisville the nation’s premier anti-racist university. These are just some examples of her transformative power. But what is most remarkable is her ability to personally connect and value every person she interacts with.”

Bendapudi held diversity and inclusivity among her priorities from the outset at Louisville and faced an immediate challenge just days into her tenure when former trustee, benefactor, and Papa John’s founder John Schnatter was recorded on a company call using a racial slur. Bendapudi responded swiftly, removing the Papa John’s name from what is now Cardinal Stadium and Schnatter’s name from the Center for Free Enterprise at the College of Business.

“These comments were hurtful and unacceptable, and they do not reflect the values of our university,” Bendapudi wrote in a letter to the university community at the time. “By taking this action, we renew our community’s commitment to speaking up when it matters, doing what is right, and coming together as one team — our Cardinal family — to heal and move forward.”

Bendapudi also promised openness and transparency in her presidency. Recently, though, the Courier-Journal criticized her for failing to live up to that pledge when she declined to explain “how a board meeting met the legal requirements to be conducted behind closed doors and why athletic director Vince Tyra’s non-compete clause was waived to facilitate his taking a job with an Atlantic Coast Conference competitor.”

The newspaper also questioned whether Bendapudi undermined “Tyra’s authority in imposing [basketball coach] Chris Mack’s six-game suspension or in the decision to retain [football coach] Scott Satterfield.”

‘Her Efforts Have Been Extraordinary’

Several prominent Kentucky officials issued high praise for Bendapudi’s accomplishments at Louisville upon the announcement of her hiring at Penn State.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell: “When President Neeli Bendapudi personally informed me of her decision to leave the University of Louisville, I was excited for her but saddened to hear the news. I remember meeting her in 2018 when she was named the 18th president of the university. I knew right away that she was the best person for the job — a premier academic and administrator with a passion for higher education. When she arrived, the university faced struggles in both its academic and athletic departments. She made it her top priority to turn these struggling programs around and make the school competitive once again. Dr. Bendapudi deserves much credit for her many accomplishments during her tenure at U of L, and I want to thank her for her impressive leadership and work on behalf of the university and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. “

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear: “President Neeli Bendapudi has done a great job at U of L and I am incredibly grateful for her commitment to both the university and the commonwealth. She’s shown leadership by example. From the successful hospital acquisition to helping navigate the university and community through COVID-19, even supporting the state through testing and vaccinations, her efforts have been extraordinary.”

Kentucky Speaker of the House David Osborne: “President Bendapudi arrived at the University of Louisville during a difficult time and leaves it with a renewed sense of purpose and a greater sense of optimism regarding the future. On behalf of the House, I wish her the absolute best in this new endeavor.”


So what’s in store for Bendapudi at Penn State? During her introductory remarks at the board meeting and 20 minutes of questions from the press, Bendapudi addressed several topics, though often said it was too soon to be able to offer many specifics. Here’s a look at some of the issues:

Values & Principles

Bendapudi emphasized three core values and guiding principles. First among them is student success and the student experience

“My vision is to create an environment where every student can achieve their human potential,” she said. “Education is the key to social mobility. It’s important that great public universities prioritize access, affordability, and diversity goals as we prepare students from all segments of society for success in their personal and professional lives. Throughout my career in academia and the corporate world, I have been a champion for access and opportunity with a relentless focus on inclusive excellence.”

She also committed to a collaborative approach to her work with faculty, staff, and alumni.

“I’m truly people-centric, or as my family calls me, an unapologetic extrovert,” she said. “I will bring that same sense of curiosity to the relationships I will strive to build within the Penn State community.”

Bendapudi also expressed a need for investment — in the university at large, in the teaching and research missions, and in people.

“This is critically important because Penn State is a shared public asset of benefit to everyone in the commonwealth,” she said. “When I say investment, I’m not talking exclusively about financial investment — although that is always necessary and always welcome. My goal is for every single Penn Stater to feel invested, invested in our mission of teaching, research, and service.”

On Her Historic Appointment

“I’m very humbled and honored and privileged to acknowledge that I’m the first woman and the first person of color to lead Penn State,” she said. “I do recognize the appointment’s symbolic value, but what I truly hope it does is that it inspires others to pursue the highest office in their chosen field, no matter who they are.

“From what I have learned, that is the ‘We are’ spirit of Penn State, that no matter who you are, when you come here you are part of the ‘We are Penn State’ family. But I also know my tenure as president will be judged on my vision and my ability to advance excellence for every single Penn Stater.”

On Athletics

As noted above, Bendapudi had challenges with Louisville athletics. At Penn State, she will come to a university with 31 varsity sports and a $160 million athletic department budget. Several trustees noted her experience with Division I athletics among her qualifications.

“She is a major sports fan and will embrace success with honor,” Trustee Ted Brown said.

“She has experience with Division 1 athletics, and she sees the importance of supporting student athletes’ success in the classroom and in competition,” Houston, the Alumni Association past president, said.

For her part, Bendapudi said she is “proud of Penn State Athletics,” and the breadth of opportunities it offers. She agreed with the sentiment often shared by college leaders that athletics are “the front porch of the university.”

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” she said. “A lot of people are attracted by that and then we offer so much more. It’s vital. I can’t wait to see what we do. It’s a very big part of our university and I’m proud of that.”

On Commonwealth Campuses

Brown said he is optimistic Bendapudi will be successful at marketing unique and renowned programs at Penn State’s 19 Commonwealth Campuses to help “fill some of those 5,000 empty seats… That will in turn address affordability as those empty seats are worth $90 million additionally per year.”

On her own and prompted by questions, Bendapudi discussed the importance of the Commonwealth Campuses several times throughout the morning.

“We can only succeed as a community, and what I love is that our community is so broad and so wide,” she said. “I am so proud of our Commonwealth Campuses. The fact that 95% of Pennsylvanians live within 30 miles of one of our Commonwealth campuses? What a point of pride.”

Trustees reinforced the importance of the Commonwealth Campuses during the interview process, but did not ask her hypotheticals about keeping all of the campuses open, she said.

Asked about growing enrollments and strengthening the campuses, Bendapudi said her first task will be to talk to the people who know them best.

“I think the first thing to do is to go and visit and ask people who are there on the ground what their ideas are,” she said. “They’re such a huge economic engine for all of the commonwealth. So to think about how do we use that asset as best that we can. It would be premature for me to say I understand all of the issues and this is what I will do. I will go there in all humility and try to learn from the people who are there what can we be doing. It’s presumptuous to think I know something they don’t. But I’m eager to go there and look at it because the vibrancy of those campuses is important, not just for us at Penn State, but for the commonwealth.”

On Greek Life

“There’s so much good that Greek life can offer, when you think about the fact that students who are members of Greek life have higher GPAs or service hours; they tend to be great donors,” she said. “But we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that there are often problems. My intention is to work with every student organization. When we say ‘We are Penn State,’ we need to make sure that every member of the Penn State community represents us to the highest values and ethics that we have.”

On Diversity & Inclusivity

During her tenure as president, Louisville emerged as a national leader in diversity and inclusion and that remains a priority for Bendapudi at Penn State

“There is something here to build on. It’s not an alien concept here,” she said. “I will also tell you this is something that every institution of higher education is grappling with. When I say it’s not just a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s imperative, don’t just look at higher education. Look at businesses; look at nonprofit organizations. They all recognize that in a changing world that is so dynamic and unpredictable we need people around the table that don’t all look alike or think alike. That’s because diversity of thought matters in terms of tackling challenges.

“I’m very proud to see how much Penn State is doing… My goal will be to come and listen. Clearly, this was expressed as a big concern for our faculty, staff, and students. For us to continue to be vital, competitive we need to be a place where everybody says ‘Penn State is the place to go, because no matter who I am, when I come here I can make a great life for myself, my family, and my community.’ Ultimately that’s what higher education is about. It’s really about transforming lives. I’m eager. This has been a very important priority to me.”

On Whether She Will Serve As A Teaching Professor Or Researcher

Bendapudi is eligible for tenure in the Smeal College of Business — but it’s unlikely she’ll be teaching or researching on a regular basis.

“I would love that, but candidly this is a huge enterprise so the first thing to do is hopefully get President Barron’s wisdom and the wisdom of the members of our board and learn the rhythm of the academic year,” she said. “What I have done is guest lecture and I love doing that. Coming into a regular class is not always fair for the students because the life of a university president is absolutely unpredictable.”

On How Long She Plans To Be At Penn State

Bendapudi remarked several times that becoming president of Penn State is “the honor of a lifetime.”

So is Pennsylvania’s flagship university a final career landing spot, as one reporter asked?

“To me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime because I fully intend to be president here, God willing, for a long time,” she said. “That’s the plan.”

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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