First woman to lead Penn State promises excellence as president

Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, who came from Louisville to replace Eric Barron, begins her tenure with a roar in Happy Valley.

“We are …”

Penn State president Dr. Neeli Bendapudi introduced herself via video to the State College community by closing with those words, kicking off her tenure with the same exuberant chant starter you might expect to hear at a Nittany Lions game.

Monday was one of those historic moments for the 167-year-old institution—maybe a bit different than the ‘87 national championship win in the Fiesta Bowl over the University of Miami, but still with a lot of anticipation, expectation and hope as the university officially begins a new era. Bendapudi, who grew up in India, is the first woman and person of color to be hired for the leadership role at Penn State.

“I am excited to be here and to work alongside each of you to continue to advance excellence for every Penn Stater,” she said in the one-minute message. “Over the last two months, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling across the Commonwealth to visit our beautiful campuses and our health enterprise and to meet some of the amazing Penn State community. Thank you so much for your very warm welcome. I have enjoyed our dialogue. You as our students, faculty, staff, alumni and adopted alumni make this university the special place it is. I truly can’t wait to work together.”

Bendapudi replaces Eric Barron, who officially retired on Sunday after nearly three decades at Penn State, including eight in the president’s chair. She was the overwhelming choice of the Board of Trustees, boosted by her stints as provost, executive vice chancellor and dean of the school of business at the University of Kansas and three transformational years as president of the University of Louisville. It was hard to overlook her stature as a marketing and business leader, her extensive research work on consumer habits and her heavy lean on student success.

“As an accomplished leader, she will bring a forward-looking perspective to the presidency while remaining grounded in the important connections with our students,” professor and selection committee member Nina Jablonski said after Bendapudi was announced as the next president. “The qualities of a 21st-century academic leader—commitments to excellence, equity and opportunity—are second nature to Dr. Bendapudi.”

A history of success and strength

Bendapudi began her education overseas in the large port city of Visakhapatnam in India, earning both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from Andhra University. She moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, spurred by her father’s similar path to earning an education abroad at Kansas.

“Even as a child, I knew my dad was away to make life better for all of us. Not only was my father a professor, but my mother, after all three of her daughters were well into school, earned her doctorate, so I’ve seen the benefit, and have always known I wanted to be in education,” Bendapudi told Penn State’s news service. “I know firsthand the power and purpose higher education can have for individuals, families and communities across the generations. Serving as Penn State’s president is the greatest professional honor of my life, and I will dedicate myself to advancing excellence for all Penn Staters.”

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After earning her Ph.D. at Kansas, Bendapudi became an assistant professor at Texas A&M University and then professor at Ohio State University, eventually becoming the founding director at OSU’s Institute for Managing Services in its Fisher College of Business. She then moved back to Kansas, where she became the first woman to lead its college of business. After boosting graduation and job placement rates, she landed in the president’s role at Louisville, again becoming the first woman in that post.

One key component of her years there was her ability to stabilize the university environment after previous president James Ramsey was involved in several scandals that led to his ouster. Within months of her taking over the role, she also helped implement a name change on the former Papa John’s Stadium after founder John Schnatter made public comments about national anthem protests. Though many years removed from the Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, Bendapudi will help continue the work of Barron and repair some of the image problems that still haunt the university.

Aside, from her many achievements in higher ed—including boosts in diversity and enrollment at Louisville—she also brings networking prowess to the university. Her long list of published research and affiliations in the corporate world and the U.S. Army are the kinds of connections a major institution needs from its president, one that notably is coming off its best philanthropic campaign ever. But she knows, the hard work is ahead, on many fronts.

“We must continue to innovate, though, and we must never be complacent,” she said.


Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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