When I started covering Penn State for Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau this summer, I was keenly interested in how the school’s new president, Neeli Bendapudi, would lead the largest university in Pennsylvania.
In July, I began digging into her past experiences as a business leader, professor, dean, and university president. My reporting process started broad — identifying themes over decades and looking for key moments that helped shape her leadership style.
To best predict how Bendapudi may lead at Penn State, my editors and I decided to analyze the most comparable position she’s held: her three-and-a-half-year tenure as president of the University of Louisville. We explored the problems she inherited, the choices she made, and the questions that remained after her unexpected departure for Happy Valley.
I reviewed hundreds of pages of board meeting minutes, lawsuits, and internal University of Louisville emails, as well as past interviews and media appearances. I also spoke with 10 people who worked directly with or alongside Bendapudi in Kentucky.
My editors played a critical role in identifying some key moments of her presidency in Kentucky — stabilizing the university’s leadership, purchasing a local health care system, and responding to protests for greater racial justice in 2020.
The editing process was rigorous. Four editors read the profile multiple times — checking everything from spelling, grammar, and clarity to organization and factual accuracy. As the reporter, I had to provide evidence to support each sentence, each statement of fact. For example, when I wrote that Bendapudi “regularly jokes about being a ‘recovering banker,’” I had to show my editors the multiple times over the years Bendapudi has used that phrase as a joke.
While the story is filled with quotes from Bendapudi, it’s important to note she did not directly answer questions from Spotlight PA for this piece. This summer, we contacted Penn State’s Office of Strategic Communications to request an interview with the president. The office responded that we would be added to a list of media organizations seeking an interview. That request was never granted.
In September, we again contacted Strategic Communications with a specific request to interview Bendapudi about her time at Louisville for this story. Lisa Powers, senior director of university public relations, wrote in an email, “President Bendapudi has already addressed particular aspects of her time as a leader at Louisville and is now focused on her tenure at Penn State.” Requests by Spotlight PA sent directly to the president’s office for an interview went unanswered.
About two weeks before we published the profile, we sent a detailed list of the story’s findings to Bendapudi, through the Office of Strategic Communications, to offer a final chance for comment. We gave Penn State a week to respond to, or refute, any of the assertions we intended to print in the story.
This approach — sometimes called the “no surprises” letter — is typical in investigative journalism. It’s a measure of transparency and fairness we use to make sure no one is blindsided by details or allegations when a story is published.
This time, Strategic Communications provided written comments from Bendapudi. We updated the story to include some of them, and revised other areas where the president’s new comments added clarity. We also published her comments — and our “no surprises” letter to her — in full online.
The entire process — from the first phone call to publication — took nearly four months.
Read our profile of Neeli Bendapudi here.
—Wyatt Massey, Penn State investigative reporter