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Take Note: New Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi on the "transformative power of higher education"

Michelle Bixby
Penn State
Penn State’s new president Neeli Bendapudi talks about the changing landscape of higher education and how that affects student success at Penn State.

Penn State’s new president Neeli Bendapudi started in early May. She came from the University of Louisville, where she was president for three years. Bendapudi talked with WPSU about the changing landscape of higher education and how that affects student success at Penn State.

Here's the conversation:

Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I’m Min Xian.

Dr. Neeli Bendapudi became the 19th president of Penn State on May 9th. Before her nomination last December, Bendapudi was president of the University of Louisville in Kentucky from 2018 to 2021.

Penn State’s Board of Trustees unanimously confirmed her nomination, saying her three decades of experience in academia as well as in business and consulting made her the ideal leader for the university.

Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, welcome to Take Note.

Neeli Bendapudi: Thank you so much, Min. It's an honor and a pleasure to join you.

Min Xian: In a recent conversation you had with your predecessor Eric Barron, you called yourself a “living testament to the transformative power of higher education.” What do you mean by that?

Neeli Bendapudi: I'm talking about the fact that higher education is what made it possible for someone like me to be where I am today, the fact that I am the president of, without question, one of the greatest universities in the world would never have been possible for a young girl growing up in South India to ever have dreamt possible. So at every step of the way, it's higher education that opened those doors. And so to me, it is such an honor and it's like a dream come true, to do my part, to open those doors or help to keep those doors open for other young people.

Min Xian: Penn State is a large institution. The annual budget is nearly $8 billion. There are 24 campuses across the state. Extension offices. A hospital. What’s your approach to learning Penn State’s operations?

Neeli Bendapudi: Great question, Min. One, I won't say that it's a huge—it's a great advantage—but certainly, I hope one advantage is that I've had a lot of experience working with very complex organizations, both as in a consulting capacity as well as in the private sector or public sector. So I think the key is to always drill it down to the essentials, what are the key things that make us who we are? So while I am not afraid, luckily, of financial statements and operational details, I joke that I'm a recovering banker, and that definitely comes in handy. I've sat on public and private company boards forever, and even helped to put army university together, you know, a big complex organization.

To me, it's always about remembering and never losing sight of the mission. Who are we? What are we here to do? So as long as I remember that, beyond all of the detail, what are we doing to ensure student success for every single student on our campus? Are we doing our part to contribute to social mobility? What are we doing as a land grant university for the economic development of this entire region? Which is something that we are supposed to do? And finally, what are we doing? To make sure that our research, our tremendous faculty and staff working along with our students? How do we make sure that our research has an impact, a positive impact on the world? And so that's how I tried to get prepared and say, whether it's our clinical care operations, whether it's our extension operations, whether it's what's happening in the classroom, or on a field. So that's what I boil it down to.

Min Xian: And I know that this spring, you have been touring campuses in the last few months, and you talked about the special roles, you see Penn State's commonwealth campuses play in your acceptance speech back in December. So can you talk about those special roles? What do you see in commonwealth campuses?

Neeli Bendapudi: Min, I have to tell you that intellectually, I knew how important the commonwealth campuses are when I spoke in December when I was announced, but over the past seven weeks, maybe 10 weeks now, actually being on the campuses, seeing each and every one of them, has really brought it home to me what the land-grant mission means. These campuses are changing lives every single day. And I wish that more people knew that at every single commonwealth campus now you can get a four year degree. You know, it's no longer Hey, you start there two years, and then you have to move. And certainly many students do and we love that that's fine. But the idea that you can make college affordable for people by staying at home and containing costs and not giving up on getting a world class degree that's recognized around the world. That's pretty tremendous.

And these commonwealth campuses are so intertwined in the life of the community. They are economic engines in and of themselves. So I loved it. And each of them is unique. And each of them has its own challenges. But the breadth and depth of what Penn State does every day just is awe inspiring.

Min Xian: Well, I want to come back to that in a little bit. But you also have talked about a few priorities that would guide your presidency of Penn State already. The most important one is to invest in student success.

Neeli Bendapudi: Correct.

Min Xian: Why is that so important to you?

Neeli Bendapudi: If you think about why do we exist as institutions of higher education, there's a lot of things that we do. But ultimately, it comes back to what you and I started with, which is higher education transforms the lives of not just that one student, but of their families and their communities.

And I define student success, not just as helping them get a degree. And that is important. I am very concerned nationally about students who drop out with some college and no degree, because that's the worst of all possible worlds, they've incurred debt, and they have nothing to show for it. So clearly, we want them to finish their degrees, but it's also preparing them during those college years, for a job, a career, for life for being a great neighbor, for being a great citizen. These are the obligations of higher education. So that's why to me, it truly does always come down to what are we doing for each of our students.

Min Xian: The pandemic has caused some current and even prospective students to reconsider what they want from higher education, and whether they feel it's worthwhile, especially for the cost. So what would this type of rethinking among students mean to Penn State?

Neeli Bendapudi: And I think it's a, it's a great question for everyone to ask. And it's a great question for us to ask ourselves, I am not at all saying college is the only path for every single individual. No, there's many ways to build a great life. But if you look at, without question, the lifetime earnings, and that's not the only metric, by any means, health, participation in civic organizations, we know that a college degree really does make a tremendous difference, right?

And so, to me, what the pandemic has shown us also, is we used to think everybody will just move completely online, and that's fine. But we know that's not true. Both students and faculty and staff yearn for that personal connection, because college is about, not just what you know, or what you do, it's about what you are, what you become. And so, to me, this has opened up the discussion of how do we make the most of the time that we are together? How do we learn to disagree agreeably? How do we learn to challenge ideas? How do we create a sense of belonging for every, every single person no matter who they are? So these are big and profound questions. And what excites me, Min, is, if not Penn State, then who? And even more excitingly, if we can find a way to unleash this power of higher education for our students, then that is a model for the whole country, because we definitely know that the jobs of the future are asking for more critical thinking skills, collaboration, communication, all of the things that higher education is very well poised to deliver.

Min Xian: And I do have questions about enrollment now that we're talking about student success. Penn State enrollment has fallen from more than 93,000 in the fall of 2017 to just under 89,000 in the fall of 2021. Those are the latest numbers that we have. And while enrollment actually grew at University Park, the commonwealth campuses are seeing drops almost across the board. How will this affect the special rules that you have talked about that you see in commonwealth campus?

Neeli Bendapudi: It's a very, very good point. And it comes back to me to our being very aware that commonwealth campuses are not one amorphous blob, because even amongst commonwealth campuses, we certainly know that some campuses are growing and are at capacity and others are certainly seeing enrollment declines. And we need to be part of the solution.

There are two things at play here, Min. One is the demographics. As you know, there's a demographic cliff, the idea that overall the traditional college aged – college going students, that demographic is on the decline nationally, and certainly in Pennsylvania, do we just throw up our hands and say, Oh, too bad? Or do we rethink higher education? So on these commonwealth campuses, one of the things is, what are the barriers? For those who are in that traditional age? What barriers can we remove? Is it affordability? Is it academic preparedness? Is it feeling like you don't belong? But we also need to think about lifelong learning. That is something that commonwealth campuses should be thinking about, and they are, the leaders there are so impressive, saying for the local industry, are there individuals who maybe never got – went to college, but now discovered that that would be helpful to them. So we need to be mindful and not come out with one size fits all, but really look at each individual area and say, how do we best position them for success?

Min Xian: On top of that, the U.S. saw a 15% decrease in international student enrollment in 2020, understandably, because of the pandemic. That is the biggest drop since data was collected starting in 1948. Is that a widespread trend that is not unique to Penn State? And if it's not up to Penn State to reverse this nationwide trend, what can the university do to prepare for this kind of shift?

Neeli Bendapudi: You know, that's a great question. I don't think it's unique to Penn State, as you know, international travel with the pandemic was restricted, both within the United States and in the countries and obviously, concerns about how to travel costs. All of these are issues. Penn State has a long and proud tradition of serving international students. So we are fortunate to have World Campus, which allows us when students are not able to physically travel to still access Penn State and be part of that Penn State nation, you know, they still are able to do that. And many students have looked to that to be able to continue their education. But these are, as you know, the pandemic was truly once in a lifetime experience. One hopes, I certainly hope. So these are challenging times. But that's when our muscle of resiliency is tested. Right? So Penn State, we are looking at it, monitoring it, trying to see what can we do to prevent those gaps in education for students.

Min Xian: One impact related to the low enrollment levels at commonwealth campuses we're seeing is budget cuts at Penn State Altoona. The campus, unfortunately has seen its enrollment dropped 23% in the past five years and has plans to cut its budget by $4.7 million over two years. Some people might look at that and say, well, that makes financial sense, at the very least, and others might worry that program cuts will lead to even lower enrollment and Penn State like many other higher education institutions, have to face that tough debate. What is your thinking when it comes to that?

Neeli Bendapudi: You've posted beautifully. This is a twofold answer. Number one in terms of the numbers, Min, I understand that our provost and our commonwealth campus chancellor, Dr. Kelly Austin, are working closely to make sure that everybody understands. There's some misunderstandings about the numbers and what's happening. And so in Altoona, I do know that they're doing the very best with the faculty whose jobs are at risk to try to work with them, and say, here are other places you could go, what do we do. But you're right, if there are no students, then it is a challenge, because it's not fair to the rest of the students to say we'll continue to hold on to faculty, even when there is no demand because they all have to bear the costs. But I want us to, I understand this was 10, 11 years in the making, by the way, so this did not happen overnight.

To me, the way we prevent that is we look out ahead from now on, Min, we look and say we know this enrollment trends, so we should never be caught off guard. And what you say is right in terms of in business, we call it reversing the percentages between advertising and sales. So bear with me for a minute, I'll be a professor for a second, what you're pointing out is, let's say sales are down. And so then you cut your advertising spend, then what will happen, sales will go down more, and then therefore you say you cut it more. That's the analogy you're making to faculty and students. So I don't think that cutting and being reactive is the answer.

We have to be responsible. It is important, like you cannot say I'm going to keep this open and pay even if there's no demand because as I said, that cost is then borne by the students who will say that's not fair. But I will do everything I can to start today on every single campus to say, what's the future? What are we doing? Are we being nimble? Are we providing the support to grow? I hope that makes some sense in terms of what I talked about causality and being more proactive.

Min Xian: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Neeli Bendapudi, the 19th president of Penn State. Bendapudi started her tenure in early May, after three years as president of the University of Louisville.

You helped the University of Louisville achieved its highest enrollment in decades in 2020. What are some lessons there that might translate in your new role when you're now looking at these kind of new set of challenges?

Neeli Bendapudi: It’s all a team. So it sounds like I did it. And it's never the truth anymore in the world. It's too complex for any one individual. But certainly, I hope you saw that to me, we need to think about different segments. And we need to think about individuals and how are we serving them best. So the same philosophy was that I hope to bring – it's the philosophy, it's not the approach because every institution is different. And the context is different. But maybe we are talking about veterans, if we are going to attract so many veterans that are here that are eager to get the credential to get a job that shows all of the skills they've already learned. It could be are we creating the most veteran friendly and right environment? Are we removing the barriers to keeping them here?

And to me, the biggest thing I like to focus on when we look at recruitment is what are best practices. We don't have to look outside. That's the beauty of Penn State, right within, because of our so many commonwealth campuses there are best practices. There's one that's doing an extraordinary job of really recruiting the growing Latino, Latina population. Well, let's learn from them. What are they doing and not keep it hidden? And instead share it across the system. So to me, it is understanding deeply. And respecting that college is an investment, a huge investment for the student and for their families, and that it's a sacred trust when they come to us. So if we can show them that we are mindful for that, of that, and that we are building every single day programs that will provide the right ROI, the return on investment, you know, for every student, I think that's the key.

Min Xian: One of your lasting legacies as president of the University of Louisville was Louisville's purchase of a four-hospital system there. You were credited with keeping more than 5,000 jobs by turning the money losing system into a functional asset that served the region. So I am really interested in learning what did you take away from that move? And are there lessons that could apply to Penn State Health?

Neeli Bendapudi: My gosh, you definitely do your research. I appreciate it. It is truly one of the things I'm proudest of and grateful for the whole team and our board the vision, working with politicians on both sides of the aisle. So I'm very grateful to a lot of people that allowed me to bring that vision into make it a reality.

The big concern was beyond the jobs, what would happen to health care in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. These hospital systems were the places where the most vulnerable populations were going for care. And I'm so grateful we were able to save those systems. And it's actually a creative to the university now, save the jobs, save the research, helped our medical school. And during the pandemic. None of us foresaw the pandemic. So if these had closed, I don't know how the Commonwealth of Kentucky would have responded. So I do hope I've learned some lessons from that that I bring here. There too, it was always it's about asking questions, never assuming you're the smartest person in the room. That's not a problem for me, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I'm not. And then building a strong team, getting people to tell you the truth, their truth, ultimately, I will own every decision. But if we don't have candid conversations, and here too, I really hope to rely on shared governance. That's something people outside of university don't always understand. But I think it's a key strength of a university. So I want to mention that. That's something else I learned that when you take these big moves, that it's important that people at least understand why you are doing what you're doing, that they know the motivations that are guiding your decisions. So I'm very, very grateful to have played a small part in that.

Min Xian: And athletics, especially football are really important to a lot of Penn Staters, you've already led a search for and hired a new athletic director, Patrick Kraft, what are your goals for Penn State Athletics?

Neeli Bendapudi: Penn State Athletics is incredibly important. It's a very big part of our university. But it's only a part right? You know, that in terms of the breadth of what we do.

Why I think athletics matters so much is it creates such a sense of belonging for everyone who goes to Penn State, for our alumni, we cheer and then the economic impact, Min, not for Penn State, but for State College, for all of the businesses for our surrounding area is pretty tremendous. So it was important for me to hire someone who understood – who's competitive, I'm competitive, I want to win, but who also understand that first and foremost, we're an institution of higher education, we take care of the students, they’re student athletes, and success with honor is something that's in the DNA of Penn State. So I think that's important that we continue that.

I think in packraft, we have someone who is truly dedicated to the student, I say this, Min, because for every athlete, no matter who they are, there will come a time when the buzzer sounds and the athlete part of their life is done. But our obligation, when we talk about the transforming power of higher education, is to prepare them for life. So I am very excited about Pat Kraft. And Pat gets it that we have 31 teams, and every single one of those teams deserves the support and deserves the chance to be competitive.

Min Xian: You are the first woman and first person of color to lead the university. And as an institution, Penn State has a lot of initiatives in place to increase diversity, although some people are frustrated that they will get more tractions. What are your experiences with diversity efforts like?

Neeli Bendapudi: I think you're right. Penn State has so many initiatives underway and so much great work under President Barron and others. So I hope to definitely respect and continue those. But I think that diversity is not just something nice to do is not just something that's an extra, it's a necessity in today's world, if you want to be competitive, why would you not want to have the most diverse talent pool that you could get? The world is so complex, we need people with many different life experiences, to be looking at issues and providing their perspectives. So it's a very deep commitment for me.

And for me, diversity means diversity of identities, all the intersectionalities people might bring, it means diversity of thought. So we may not all agree, and we have to make space for that. It's diversity of abilities and disabilities, it's life experiences. To me, the big opportunity is not just to bring people here, that's part of it. I hope that I found this a very welcoming community, and I love it here. But it's not just bringing people here. But once they come, making that commitment to try to do everything we can to give them the support and the systems within which to thrive. Ultimately, it's up to that individual, but are we retaining them as well is the metric that I would look at.

Min Xian: You were credited with right the ship during your time at University of Louisville, because Louisville was in various turmoils when you started there. Is it fair to say that your transition to Penn State is quite different?

Neeli Bendapudi: That is very fair to say. Louisville was definitely, I knew it, the board knew it, was a place that needed – the fundamentals were amazing. The faculty, staff students were amazing. And I will say that every single day – but certainly it was a turnaround on many, many levels. That's not Penn State. Penn State is sound and strong. It's an incredible institution. So frankly, I'm actually very excited. This here is a situation of how do you build on strength and take it to even greater heights? Because no matter how phenomenal, just like us as people, you can never become complacent, every day is what can I do today that's better than I did yesterday. And so I hope to bring that spirit to Penn State.

Min Xian: And so what do you look forward to accomplishing the most in your first year as Penn State's president?

Neeli Bendapudi: I think learning as much as I can, meeting all the different constituents, and building trust, where we know we're working together as one team, that we are building transparent leadership. And in fact, if I could get everyone who gets a paycheck at Penn State, no matter what their role, whatever they do, to remember, every morning while I'm here today, because the work I do is changing a student's life a student's future that I would consider to be a great success.

Min Xian: Neeli Bendapudi, thank you so much for joining us on Take Note.

Neeli Bendapudi: Min, I'm so grateful to you. And thank you, I enjoy listening to you. And I look forward to continuing to do so.

Min Xian: Thank you so much. Dr. Neeli Bendapudi began her tenure as the 19th president of Penn State on May 9th. Before her nomination last December, Bendapudi was president of the University of Louisville in Kentucky from 2018 to 2021.

You can listen to more Take Note interviews on I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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