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Penn State names Louisville president Neeli Bendapudi as its next leader

Bendapudi, 58, was born in India and has led the Louisville university since 2018. She is the first woman and person of color to lead Pennsylvania’s flagship university.

Neeli Bendapudi, who is the new president of Penn State University, speaks during a press conference at State College, Thursday, December 9, 2021.
Neeli Bendapudi, who is the new president of Penn State University, speaks during a press conference at State College, Thursday, December 9, 2021.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania State University Thursday hired its first female president and first president of color in the school’s 166-year history.

Neeli Bendapudi, who currently leads the University of Louisville, was named as the replacement for outgoing Penn State president Eric J. Barron. Penn State’s board of trustees unanimously approved her appointment at a meeting in State College.

Bendapudi, 58, who started her academic career as professor of marketing but also has worked in the private sector, was born in India and has led the Kentucky school since 2018.

“It’s truly the honor of a lifetime,” Bendapudi said taking the podium at the trustees meeting after she was hired. “I’m in awe of Penn State’s ‘we are’ spirit and the transformative power of a Penn State education and of the Penn State community, which is like no other anywhere.”

She said her first name means “blue” and that she grew up in an area of India known as the rice bowl state, an agricultural state, noting Penn State’s agricultural history. “It seems like maybe I was born to wear and cheer on the blue and white,” she said.

Starting July 1, Bendapudi will oversee Penn State’s 24 campuses, including a law school, medical school, and graduate campus, and more than 97,000 students, nearly half of them at its anchor in University Park. By contrast, Louisville has about 23,000 students at three campuses.

“Neeli Bendapudii is the whole package when it comes to remarkable university leadership and she has demonstrated this in meaningful ways,” Trustee Bill Oldsey said before the vote. “She’s faced a number of significant challenges, both financial and organizational, and her ability to collaborate, to problem solve, to innovate and lead are well documented.”

The board set the new president’s salary at $950,000 with $350,000 deferred compensation, under a contract that extends to 2027. Under her most recent contract, Bendapudi had earned nearly $1 million a year in salary and benefits. Other terms include a $100,000 payment when she starts and another on her one-year anniversary. She’ll also be eligible to receive a $1.25 million payment if she completes the five years of her contract.

Bendapudi’s appointment follows a national search that yielded hundreds of names, even while universities nationwide were experiencing significant turnovers in presidents amid the coronavirus. It also comes as schools around the country, including Penn State, have faced a racial reckoning and calls for more diversity in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Penn State’s undergraduate student population is about two-thirds white. About 5.6% of the student body is Black and about 7.7% Latino, with other groups including Asian, mixed race and international making up the rest, according to federal data from 2019, the latest available.

“It’s about time that we had a president who wasn’t a white male, speaking as one myself,” said Jesse Barlow, a professor of computer science and engineering and president of State College’s borough council.

Barron announced in February that he would step down at the end of this academic year, after leading Penn State for eight years. He was hired in 2014 in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, now a decade old. Barron, who reportedly earned $1.1 million in total compensation in 2020, has since led the university through another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.

» READ MORE: Penn State president to step down next year

Born in Visakhapatnam, India in 1963, Bendapudi attended business school at nearby Andhra University where she got a bachelor’s in English and an MBA. She later moved to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of Kansas and earned a doctorate in marketing.

Bendapudi taught at Texas A&M University and Ohio State University before returning to Kansas to serve as dean of that university’s business school and, later, as its vice chancellor. She also has experience in business, having served as an executive vice president and chief customer officer for a bank.

In 2018, she was named president of the University of Louisville in 2018, following the resignation of James R. Ramsey, who was implicated in a string of internal scandals. As president, Bendapudi was involved in a push to rename U of L’s football stadium after news emerged that Papa John’s Pizza founder John Schnatter, the booster and university trustee whose name was on the structure, had used a racial slur.

During her tenure, Bendapudi won accolades from the university’s board of trustees for improving the school’s credit outlook, attracting a record $170 million in research funding and increasing school enrollment. The school also acquired ailing hospital network KentuckyOne Health, greatly expanding the university’s medical operations.

“She’s a president I would want to learn from,” said Erin Boas, Penn State student body president. Boas said she’s already learned lessons from Bendapudi, including her belief that “a leader can never communicate enough” and her emphasis on communicating with students.

In recent months, sports reporters asserted Bendapudi’s office was heavily involved in a controversial decision to suspend men’s basketball coach Chris Mack. Mack had secretly taped an assistant who’d targeted him for an extortion scheme. This and other issues contributed to reports of an allegedly contentious relationship with Vince Tyra, the outgoing head of the university’s popular athletics department.

She is married to Venkat Bendapudi, a retired associate professor at the University of Louisville.

She is the first Penn State president since Joab Thomas, who left in 1995, who didn’t previously work at Penn State.

Barlow, the borough council president and professor, said he hopes the lines of communication will be open between the new president and council.

“As a professor, I’m hoping that she simply makes the university better and makes Penn State degrees more valuable,” he said.

Faculty Senate President Bonj Szczygiel welcomed Bendapudi.

“She will be a representative figure of a more inclusive, diverse community of the 21st century; epitomizing strong female leadership, a recognition of importance and value of unity through diversity, with the noted attributes of compassion and energy,” Szczygiel said.

Barron arrived at Penn State less than three years after Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was charged with abusing young boys. Several of the university’s top leaders were ousted. The board of trustees was deeply divided over how the controversy was handled and Barron tried to provide a steadying influence. He has focused on economic development, fund-raising, and making college accessible to and affordable for more students. Tuition was frozen three times under his leadership.

The university’s research expenditures exceeded $1 billion under his watch. Barron also championed a plan to build an $85 million art museum to replace its aging facility and house a growing collection. He also cracked down on Greek life after the death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza in 2017 and co-led a national meeting of university officials on ways to improve fraternity and sorority life.

Staff writers Bob Fernandez, Chris Williams and Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this article.