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 present his full program for the school of more than 97,000 students. But the former president of the University of Louisville shared some of her top priorities during an interview earlier this month from her office on Penn State’s main campus.
Whereas she officially became president on May 9, Bendapudi – who will earn an annual salary of $950,000 under a contract that spans the 2026-27 academic year – arrived on campus seven weeks before that to work alongside outgoing President Eric J. Barron. She has already visited all but two of the university’s 19 Commonwealth campuses or branches across the state. A first priority, she said, will be making sure they get the attention they need to thrive.
She made one of her first high-profile decisions last week, announcing that Assistant Professor Oliver Baker, who had a physical altercation with a student protester at a rally in support of COVID-19 vaccine mandates in August last, could keep his job – although 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 president of the faculty senate. “I have determined that this was clearly misconduct on the part of the faculty member. I have also determined that there is no clear and convincing evidence that this behavior rises to the level of ‘serious misconduct required to terminate employment and revoke mandate.
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The faculty had rallied behind Baker, who also had the misdemeanor charges against him dropped. Some called on Penn State to expel the student, Avi Rachlin, who tried to disrupt the rally that day, waving anti-vaccine signs, shouting and swearing, 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 made up largely of faculty, disputed in a statement that Baker had committed misconduct and said he was “trying to defend students and faculty against a sexist and racist provocateur.”
Bendapudi also attended his first meeting of Big Ten Conference presidents last weekend. During the interview, she acknowledged the debate over compensation for college athletes, a topic that Jay Paterno, a Penn State board member and son of the late football coach Joe Paterno, recently wrote about. He advocated for legislation that would allow athletes to organize and engage in collective bargaining, and would require major universities to “develop a revenue sharing plan” that would increase the scholarships athletes already receive.
“The idea that athletes should have the opportunity to participate and benefit in some way, [given] what they contribute to the university makes sense to me,” Bendapudi said. “I just don’t want us to lose sight that our primary focus is the education of these young people, because at some point there is time beyond the buzzer, for anyone. Our role is to ensure that we deliver on the academic promise made to them.
Bendapudi says she will also pay close attention to the Penn State medical system, as she did with the University of Louisville health system. In 2019, Louisville bought a system with four hospitals that required a $50 million state loan, but saved hundreds of jobs and kept care in place for the area, according to the news. reports.
Next month, she will address the trustees at her first regular board meeting as president, where the board will likely set tuition fees for next year. Although Bendapudi was not ready to say whether she would support an increase, she said tuition hikes were acceptable if additional funds were applied to student aid to reduce the burden on those who could least. afford.
Here is more to know about Bendapudi.
Hometown: Visakhapatnam, India
Education: BA in English and MBA from Andhra University, India; in Marketing from the University of Kansas
Family: Husband, Venkat Bendapudi, (retired teacher). Married 38 years. His daughter, Sirisha Bendapudi and son-in-law, Kyle Ladd, also moved to State College with 15-month-old grandson, Arjun. Mom, Padma, will be moving to State College soon.
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Favorite movies: It’s a wonderful life, and more recently Soul
Favorite TV show to binge on: used to be Law and order, now it’s Breakup
Favorite artist or band: Black Violin, because they inspired her husband to dance.
Favorite foods: Biriyani with vegetables and ice cream
Favorite vacation spot: The beach
Books she is currently reading or has read recently: Earth Cuckoo Cloud and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (this last one annual tradition)
Choice of exercise: While walking
Favorite professional sports team: “I’m more college sports“, she says. “So for pro teams, every team with Penn State alumni!”
Currency to live by: “Cultivate gratitude.”
If you had to sum up your leadership philosophy in one sentence, it would be:We are only as strong as the teams we develop and we are truly one team when we are aligned on the mission, play complementary roles, welcome diverse perspectives, have candid conversations and give voice.
Favorite teacher growing up and why: “Mr. Rajan, my art teacher. He didn’t just teach drawing and painting; he taught life lessons about creativity, compassion, empathy and perspective.
What keeps you up at night: “Sleeplessness. Seriously, it’s about how do we deliver on the land-grant university’s promise at the scale we have and with the agility we need to have.”
If you had all the money you wanted for Penn State, you would have:Invest in our students, faculty, staff, and our teaching, research, service, and outreach mission.