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Penn State’s new president Neeli Bendapudi on her early priorities — and some personal favorites

She's got her eye on the branch campuses and health system, but her first priority is student success.

Neeli Bendapudi, Pennsylvania State University's new president, by the Nittany Lion statue on the main campus in State College.
Neeli Bendapudi, Pennsylvania State University's new president, by the Nittany Lion statue on the main campus in State College.Read moreCourtesy of Pennsylvania State University

It’s been about a month since Neeli Bendapudi took over as Pennsylvania State University’s first female president and first president of color.

Bendapudi, 58, says it’s too early to lay out her full agenda for the more than 97,000-student school. But the former president of the University of Louisville shared some of her early priorities during an interview earlier this month from her office at Penn State’s main campus.

While she officially became president on May 9, Bendapudi — who will earn an annual salary of $950,000 under a contract that runs through the 2026-27 academic year — arrived on campus seven weeks before that to work alongside outgoing president Eric J. Barron. She’s already visited all but two of the university’s 19 Commonwealth or branch campuses across the state. An early priority, she said, will be to make sure they get the attention they need to flourish.

She made one of her first high-profile decisions last week, announcing that assistant professor Oliver Baker, who got into a physical altercation with a student protester at a rally to support COVID-19 vaccine mandates last August, could keep his job — though she called his behavior “misconduct.”

“The faculty member was an active antagonist with a student in a free-speech zone,” she wrote in an email to the chair of the faculty senate. “I have determined this is clearly misconduct by the faculty member. I have also determined that there is not clear and compelling evidence that this behavior rises to the level of grave misconduct required to terminate employment and revoke tenure.”

» READ MORE: Penn State expanded its branch campuses decades ago. Now, some say that’s one reason state universities are struggling.

Faculty had rallied behind Baker, who also had misdemeanor charges against him dropped. Some have called on Penn State to expel the student, Avi Rachlin, who was attempting to disrupt the rally that day, waving anti-vaccine signs, shouting, and cursing, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bendapudi declined to comment on Rachlin during the interview with The Inquirer.

The Coalition for a Just University, a group largely made up of faculty, disputed in a statement that Baker had engaged in misconduct and said he “was trying to defend students and faculty from a sexist and racist provocateur.”

Bendapudi also attended her first meeting of Big Ten Conference presidents last weekend. During the interview, she acknowledged the debate over compensation for college athletes, something that Jay Paterno, a Penn State board member and son of the late football coach Joe Paterno, wrote about recently. He advocated for legislation that would allow athletes to organize and participate in collective bargaining, and require major universities “to develop a revenue sharing plan” that would augment scholarships athletes already receive.

“The idea that athletes should have an opportunity to take part and benefit in some way, [given] what they contribute to the university, it makes sense to me,” Bendapudi said. “I just don’t want us to ever lose sight that our primary goal is the education of these young people because at some point, there is time beyond the buzzer, for anyone. Our role is to make sure we keep up the academic promise to them.”

Bendapudi says she’ll also pay close attention to Penn State’s medical system, as she did with the health system at the University of Louisville. In 2019, Louisville purchased a system with four hospitals that required a $50 million state loan but saved hundreds of jobs and kept care in place for the region, according to news reports.

Next month, she’ll address trustees at her first regular board meeting as president, where the board will likely set tuition for next year. While Bendapudi wasn’t ready to say whether she’ll back an increase, she said tuition hikes are acceptable if additional money is applied to student aid to reduce the burden on those who can least afford it.

Here’s more to know about Bendapudi:

Hometown: Visakhapatnam, India.

Education: Bachelor’s in English and MBA from Andhra University, India; doctorate in marketing from University of Kansas.

Family: Husband, Venkat Bendapudi, (a retired professor). Married 38 years. Daughter, Sirisha Bendapudi, and son-in-law, Kyle Ladd, have also moved to State College along with 15-month-old grandson, Arjun. Mother, Padma, will be moving soon to State College.

» READ MORE: Penn State names Louisville president Neeli Bendapudi as its next leader

Favorite movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, and more recently, Soul.

Favorite TV show to binge: Used to be Law and Order, now it’s Severance.

Favorite performing artist or band: Black Violin, because they inspired her husband to dance.

Favorite foods: Vegetable Biriyani and ice cream.

Favorite vacation spot: The beach.

Books she’s currently reading or most recently read: Cloud Cuckoo Land and Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (the latter an annual tradition).

Exercise of choice: Walking.

Favorite professional sports team: “I follow college sports more,” she said. “So for pro teams, every team with Penn State alumni!”

Motto to live by: “Cultivate gratitude.”

If you had to sum up your leadership philosophy in a sentence, it would be: “We are only as strong as the teams we develop and we are only truly one team when we are aligned on the mission, play complementary roles, welcome diverse perspectives, have candid conversations, and walk the talk.”

Favorite teacher growing up and why: “Mr. Rajan, my art teacher. He did not merely teach drawing and painting; he taught life lessons about creativity, compassion, empathy, and perspective.”

What keeps you up at night: “Insomnia. On a serious note, it is how to deliver on the promise of the land grant university at the scale we have and the agility we must have.”

If you had all the money you wanted for Penn State, you would: “Invest in our students, faculty, staff, and our teaching, research, service, and extension mission.”