10 Questions With Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi

In December 2021, Onward State broke the news that the University of Louisville’s Neeli Bendapudi would succeed Eric Barron as Penn State’s next president following his retirement. Bendapudi officially took office in May and became Penn State’s 19th president and first woman and person of color to hold the university’s highest office.

Since stepping into her leadership role, Bendapudi led the search and hired Boston College’s Patrick Kraft as Penn State’s next athletic director, and she took an extended spring tour of the university’s Commonwealth campuses.

We sat down with Bendapudi to learn more about why she accepted her Penn State offer, what she is most passionate about, and what famous person she would have dinner with.

Onward State: What ultimately convinced you to leave Louisville and accept your Penn State offer? 

Neeli Bendapudi: I absolutely loved my time at Louisville and was surrounded by a truly committed team. So, it was not an easy decision to leave. However, Penn State is without doubt one of the greatest universities in the world, and it is an honor and a dream to help lead this already strong institution and bring it to even greater heights. I am inspired by what this University means to the Commonwealth — from our overall impact on the state’s economic health to the social mobility of those of us who call this home. Reinforcing our land-grant mission to teach, conduct research, and serve the communities in which we live and work is something I knew I wanted to be a part of. 

OS: As we approach the fall semester, what are your top priorities for the academic year? 

NB: I’m looking forward to learning even more in the coming months from and about our amazing Penn State students, staff, and faculty. The thoughts and ideas from the Penn State community will continue to play an important part in developing my vision, but at this point, I can certainly share my highest priority is to advance excellence for all Penn Staters and to create opportunities for students, staff, and faculty to thrive. That includes: 

  • Student Success In And Out Of The Classroom — I am focused on ensuring the necessary supports for our students to be fully prepared for the academic experiences that await them throughout their academic journey at Penn State. I will be working with my team to continue to identify ways we can control costs and increase value. Finally, I will be asking each of our leaders to be intentional about creating experiences that generate a sense of belonging for each and every student at Penn State regardless of their identity, background, perspective, or position. I continue to believe one of the great unique strengths of Penn State is that it is We Are and not I Am. 
  • Academic Excellence — Recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty and staff and a product of that effort includes building our research portfolio that has demonstrated broad impact in helping to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.  
  • Engaging The Commonwealth — Each of our campuses is unique in what they mean for the local community, the students they enroll, and the challenges they face. I also hope to build upon the innovation and entrepreneurship programs across the state and continue focusing on Penn State’s role as an economic driver for the commonwealth. 

OS: What are three words you would use to describe yourself and why? 

NB: Collaborative, Passionate, Curious 

  • Collaborative — I like to think through things with a group and have a big table when making decisions. I hope to never be the smartest person in the room, and I know that the decisions we make collaboratively are much better than those that any one very smart person could ever make alone. This makes leading in the academic environment of shared governance a natural fit for me. 
  • Passionate — I have been accused of having two modes: 100% and asleep. I believe I live and lead with passion, because I am truly grateful for all that this life has given me. There is no other country in which a story like mine would have been possible. I want to extend that sense of possibility for all Penn Staters.  
  • Curious — I read many books each month across a wide range of genres and areas of interest. Few things bring me more joy than experiencing — through reading, watching a performance, viewing a show, listening to music, walking through an art gallery, and more — the many ways humans create meaning in their lives and help us do the same through their creative activity, research, and scholarship.  

OS: What was your biggest takeaway after concluding your statewide tour of Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses?

NB: What I knew intellectually before visiting the campuses, I was truly able to internalize after — when you’ve seen one campus, you’ve seen just one campus. The fact that 96% of the population in Pennsylvania live within 30 miles of one of our campuses speaks volumes to the impact we have on our local communities and how critical it is that we look at each of their challenges and opportunities independently. I am in awe after meeting so many of our students, faculty, and staff, and I am inspired and committed to building on their great work. And let’s not forget the beauty that is seen and felt at each campus.

OS: How do you plan to engage with student media outlets to form relationships with the student body?

NB: Engaging with our students is not only a priority for me as president but also a passion –- the discussions and interactions truly energize me and give me the opportunity to learn and gain perspective. I hope it’s been evident already that my commitment to engaging with you and our other student media is high –- in fact, your peers were some of the very first people I sat down with following my press announcement in December 2021.  

OS: Besides academics and leadership, what are you passionate about? 

NB: I have a new passion I have been honing over the last 15 months…being a grandma! My grandson, Arjun, was born late February 2021, and it has been truly incredible to have him living here in State College and getting to see him learn new things each and every day. When I’m not presidenting, playing with Arjun, or reading a book, you can find me walking with my husband of 38 years, Venkat, or drawing and painting. 

OS: What are your early priorities for Penn State Athletics, and how will the new Athletic Director, Patrick Kraft, help achieve those goals? 

NB: Dr. Patrick Kraft is a perfect fit for Penn State because while he is a competitor at heart, he is dedicated to every student-athlete and understands that our obligation is to prepare them for life. He believes that academics come first for our student-athletes. We are committed to supporting all 31 of our teams and expect them all to be competitive — all are incredibly important to the fabric of our University.

OS: If you could have dinner with any living famous person, who would you choose? 

NB: Angela Merkel. I am fascinated with the quantum chemistry scientist who led as Chancellor of Germany for so many years.

OS: Do you have a go-to downtown spot, or are you looking forward to going anywhere specific? 

NB: On and off campus, I have just fallen in love with the Penn State Berkey Creamery. The ice cream, the cheese, the protein milk, I just can’t get enough of it.

OS: Finally, per Onward State tradition, if you were a dinosaur, which one would you be and why? 

NB: A Philydorosauras. Fossilized remains of a group of Philydrosaurus have suggested the group was living as part of a family when they died. This suggests these dinosaurs cared for their young and most closely translates to my personal emphasis on family and the importance of having my family with me here in State College. 

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a washed-up biology grad and former associate editor. Her legacy will live on through stories like “10 Questions With State College Sensation ‘Hot UPS Bae’”. If you’re a STEM girlie, this is your sign to take the leap of faith and learn to write. It’s pretty fun. Colleen misses the hate mail and can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

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