Her High-Wire Act
Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi led the University of Louisville through crises, but her sudden move to Happy Valley raised questions about her motivations and commitment.
Neeli Bendapudi was two months into her presidency when she faced down the billionaire pizza magnate.
Papa Johns founder John Schnatter was a wealthy donor and a trustee at the University of Louisville. But after he used a racial slur on a conference call, the university cut ties and renamed the football stadium that bore his company’s name. Those actions were about equity and inclusion, Bendapudi said at the time. They were about doing what was right.
After Bendapudi announced the changes, a reporter asked the new president whether she had consulted anyone else.
“I certainly heard from several people, but as the president of the university, it is both my prerogative and my responsibility to make this decision,” she said. “So, I made the decision.”
The move kicked off a string of headline-grabbing actions by Bendapudi.
When she arrived in Louisville in 2018, Bendapudi took the reins of an organization in crisis. The university was suing its past president for mismanaging tens of millions of dollars. The NCAA had sanctioned the school’s men’s basketball team. Faculty morale had plummeted. And then there was the Schnatter scandal.
The university looked to Bendapudi to fix it.
The whole situation seemed almost crafted to be a Harvard Business Review case study. Bendapudi — who has bristled at having the labels “person of color,” “immigrant,” or “woman” tacked on to her job title — was celebrated as a “first” in Louisville’s history. In the role, she talked openly about the lack of diversity in leadership and the challenges confronting people of color.
In those discussions, she often referenced the “glass cliff” she and other leaders faced. Glass cliffs are constructed in times of crisis when non-normative leaders — often women or people of color — are finally given leadership opportunities. The risk of failure is high. The edges of the cliff are transparent and could be anywhere.
Leaders on glass cliffs become stand-ins for others like them. Their failures can be weaponized by an organization as a reason not to hire or promote women or people of color.
Bendapudi has spent years navigating these landscapes. The former banker can speak on the “nobility of business,” draw inspiration from Ibram X. Kendi, and garner compliments from conservative figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
Louisville’s board applauded Bendapudi’s leadership, issuing her two raises. She was restoring the university.
Then, in the midst of finals week December 2021, she left.
She had accepted a position as the new president of The Pennsylvania State University.
The abrupt end of her three-and-a-half-year tenure in Kentucky fueled local debates about her legacy, commitment, and motivations.
“The choice that I make is to believe that she was sincere, because some people think she was a huckster,” Ricky Jones, a Louisville professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies, told Spotlight PA.
Over three months, Spotlight PA interviewed 14 people — including 10 who worked with or for Bendapudi in Kentucky — to better understand her leadership style, accomplishments, and shortcomings. Together with a review of hundreds of pages of board meeting minutes, internal University of Louisville emails, two separate lawsuits, and Bendapudi’s previous interviews and media appearances, the reporting offers an in-depth look at the leader now directing the largest public university in Pennsylvania.
Bendapudi, through Penn State’s communications department, declined an interview request from Spotlight PA for this story. Requests made directly to the president’s office went unanswered. The president provided some written comments after Spotlight PA provided a list of findings. (Read her full response here.)
The university’s Board of Trustees also declined a request to discuss why they chose Bendapudi as president.
But, as she takes the helm of a university with a $7.7 billion budget and one of the largest alumni networks in the country, is Penn State’s 19th president walking onto another glass cliff?
Louisville: A university in crisis
In the mid-2010s, scandals plagued the University of Louisville. The school’s president, James Ramsey, hosted a 2015 Halloween party at the university mansion where guests and the president wore racist costumes. Then the NCAA sanctioned the men’s basketball team for providing sex workers for recruits. Ramsey was also accused of mismanaging funds for the university’s philanthropic foundation, leading the school to sue him for $80 million in damages.
The university’s board of trustees, which had generally met quarterly, gathered 19 times in 2017. During a March 2016 meeting, a trustee told those gathered he was watching a “near-complete collapse of any semblance of a meaningful working relationship between this board and the president.”
Jones said faculty, especially Black professors, began fleeing Louisville during that time. Morale dipped. The entire operation felt like a rudderless ship, he said.
When Bendapudi accepted the role as university president in 2018, she did not promise there would be no more scandals. But she vowed to be different.
“I’m a big believer: Culture is what you tolerate. I really believe it,” she said at the time. “People talk a good game, but what will you allow to happen under your watch?”
Bendapudi became Louisville’s first woman and first person of color to be president. The new arrival from Kansas did not hide her enthusiasm for the university, throwing the school’s “L’s up” hand signal during her introduction. Years later, she said she wore Cardinal red every day for two years to show school pride.
As a leader, Bendapudi preached a “culture of openness” and continued a practice she began at the University of Kansas of giving out her personal cellphone number to new students. A direct line of communication to the university’s top leader is a form of accountability to other employees, she said. If a student felt the need to call the president for help, that meant others down the chain were failing to do their jobs.
“She listened,” Raymond Burse, a Louisville trustee during Bendapudi’s tenure, told Spotlight PA. “She didn’t necessarily do what everybody wanted her to do, but again, she presented herself as someone who was concerned about them, and she engaged with them. And those things were very important.”
In her first months as president, she dealt with the Papa Johns controversy and oversaw a 5% cut to the university’s general fund spending and a nearly 4% increase in tuition.
Her business experience was a selling point in her candidacy for the role, said Burse, who helped oversee Bendapudi’s hiring. Burse praised the way she lobbied Louisville trustees in 2019 to support her plan for the university to purchase hospitals and other properties from KentuckyOne Health, a regional care provider that was looking to leave the Louisville market.
Some trustees adamantly opposed the purchase, Burse said, and they feared that taking on the massive health care system would tank the university’s finances. One of the major hospitals, and a key piece in the deal, had struggled financially for years, according to Kentucky Health News. Details of the trustees’ conversations are not included in board meeting minutes from the time. The discussions likely occurred during executive sessions, which are not subject to open records laws.
Discussions had initially stalled during the summer of 2019, but the possible closure of the hospital spurred Bendapudi and the university to renew talks, according to reporting from the Louisville Courier-Journal. The university also risked damage to its medical school and status as a research institution if the hospital system shuttered.
The university had “a moral obligation” to preserve the health system’s services, Bendapudi told Spotlight PA. “I’m so thankful that the board agreed and took on that risk.”
The university’s takeover of multiple hospitals, outpatient centers, and the operation’s more than $300 million payroll was finalized months before the state legislature approved a partially forgivable $50 million loan, a critical piece of the acquisition.
After the deal closed in November 2019, Bendapudi traveled to Kentucky’s capitol to lobby the Republican-controlled legislature to support the loan, which was later approved and reduced to $35 million.
A year after the deal, the university health system’s CEO announced the acquired properties were turning a profit. The university announced in December 2021 it was accelerating its loan repayments because of the success.
The acquisition added more than 5,500 employees to the University of Louisville’s payroll, according to university board minutes.
Among them, working at one of the newly acquired medical centers, was a young emergency room technician named Breonna Taylor.
The banker, the academic, the chief of staff
Raised in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, and the oldest of three girls, a young Bendapudi often heard that sons were traditionally preferable to daughters. Again and again, people would tell her family, “Don’t be sad you only have daughters, who knows what you did in your previous life.”
Bendapudi recalled those comments decades later in a 2021 interview at a women’s summit, noting how the words made her more ambitious.
As a young adult, she followed in her father’s footsteps and attended the University of Kansas, where she earned a doctorate in marketing.
Her career oscillated between academia and the private sector. She took on roles such as executive vice president and chief customer officer for Huntington National Bank and worked as a consultant for other major companies. She also taught marketing at Texas A&M University and The Ohio State University, where The New York Times cited her research on Wawa’s customer service.
Regularly lauded for her business experience, she served on the boards of Sheetz and the pharmacy and merchandise franchise Fred’s, and continues to serve on the board of Lancaster Colony, a specialty food manufacturer.
At the University of Kansas, she rose through the ranks from business school dean — where she was celebrated as a “prolific fundraiser” — to provost and executive vice chancellor.
Bendapudi regularly jokes about being a “recovering banker,” though she does not renounce her support of free market capitalism. She also does not mince words when addressing academia’s failures, specifically around diversity and equity.
“The truth is that we handle diversity much worse than any business I know,” Bendapudi told the crowd at the 2021 women’s summit.
Her years working in the private sector and studying successful organizations shaped her leadership style. Influenced by her experience consulting for the Army, she crafted a chief of staff role for her administration.
She tapped Michael Wade Smith for the job. A fellow Kansas graduate who came to the university bursting with ambition, Smith met Bendapudi at an alumni event when she was dean of the Kansas business school. The two formed a tight bond. Again and again, Bendapudi turned to Smith to implement some of her biggest plans. Smith, for his part, praised her leadership style, telling the Penn Stater magazine she is “the most ethical person in the room” when decisions are made.
Their close working relationship overshadows their clear differences. Smith grew up in rural West Kansas, near the Colorado border, and graduated high school from a class of 65. He is 25 years younger than Bendapudi, a classically trained opera singer, and a registered Democrat. Bendapudi has been a registered Republican for decades. These differences, Bendapudi told Spotlight PA, have made their “professional relationship more effective.”
People who have worked with the two say the pair moves in lockstep. A directive from Smith is a directive from Bendapudi.
Louisville: The ‘premier’ anti-racist university
The police killing of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville home in March 2020 galvanized residents across the city to take to the streets demanding changes to policing.
Among the hundreds of protestors chanting “No justice, no peace” as they moved through downtown Louisville was Smith. “Solidarity means taking an action,” he wrote on social media. “… Stand with us. Own your complicity.”
The University of Louisville faced pressure from members of its community who wanted more decisive action in the wake of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s killing of Taylor. The university’s Black Student Union asked for the school to cut ties with city police.
Bendapudi demurred. In a June 2020 open letter to the Black Student Union president, she pledged to involve students and their ideas in university efforts for change. However, she wrote, the link between campus and city police would remain.
“Your request for us to immediately terminate our relationship with LMPD would not make our campus or its constituents safer, and it would be an insufficient answer to a very complex problem,” Bendapudi wrote. “The harder work in a necessary partnership is to change, mold and evolve the partnership and the partner to best facilitate the university’s need without compromising our values.”
Smith would head a universitywide anti-racism plan, Bendapudi wrote.
A month later, 700 students, faculty, and staff signed a letter to Bendapudi and other university leaders requesting more action in support of people of color across the school, and questioning how the university was holding itself accountable.
“We are heartened to hear our president and provost state this is a ‘year of accountability’ for anti-racism and indicate the goal to make UofL an ‘anti-racist’ university,” the group wrote. “However, we believe that concrete systemic, institutional changes are necessary to achieve those goals and move us beyond statements of support.”
Three weeks later, Bendapudi unveiled the university’s “Cardinal Anti-Racism Agenda.”
“I have always believed talk is cheap, and that action defines who we really are and what we truly believe,” Bendapudi wrote in the announcement of the effort. “In the months and years ahead, the Cardinal Anti-Racism Agenda will define our actions and guide our work as a university aiming to become the premier anti-racist metropolitan research university in the country.”
The declaration garnered significant applause for the president, winning over the likes of Jones and other faculty. “I could not have higher praise for her for making that statement, for stepping out with that proclamation,” Jones said. “I thought that was incredibly brave.”
Renee Shaw, the director of public affairs at Kentucky Educational Television who watched the events play out from beyond campus, told Spotlight PA that Bendapudi’s statement was a testament to the president’s unflappable leadership. Calling out racism and bias in that environment was risky, Shaw said. The president was essentially performing a high-wire act balancing the concerns of trustees, the campus, the community, and the state legislature.
Bendapudi’s administration slated the agenda — often abbreviated to CARA — to be finished by late September 2020, when it could be presented at the next trustees meetings, according to internal emails. The faculty and administrators crafting it worked through the summer, typically a time off for faculty.
The group missed its deadline. As the fall semester moved forward, Michele Foster, a professor in the university’s College of Education and Human Development who worked on the agenda for several months, grew increasingly skeptical of what could be accomplished. In June 2021, nearly a year after the initial announcement, the university said CARA was in “the final stages of development.”
Having a person of color in leadership does not immediately overhaul decades of institutional inertia, Foster told Spotlight PA. The “premier anti-racist metropolitan research university” statement sounded good, she said, but a slogan would not change the ongoing realities of being a person of color.
“That program fell flat on its face,” Foster said. “That’s when I started wondering if she was all show and no go. She is in marketing, and that’s what that was, marketing.”
In written comments to Spotlight PA, Bendapudi said building the agenda was a “multifaceted and challenging process” and that she is “completely committed to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion in our universities.”
“There are very few tools we have as leaders of public institutions to make significant change,” Bendapudi wrote. “One tool is proclaiming a bold stance.”
Others on campus shared Foster’s sentiment. During a series of campuswide listening sessions in 2021, students and university employees called the school’s anti-racism statement “timely,” but voiced concerns about the lack of accountability for leaders to implement the program. Some people of color said they felt tokenized and not supported at the university.
Campus community members later asked for a budget line to support CARA. The university president should do more than just say the right thing, they said during a February 2022 listening session. “Don’t just give lip service,” notes from the session read.
“If you asked people today what has been accomplished by CARA, I don’t think you could get 10 people to tell you,” Foster said. “It’s a report that sits on a shelf.”
Jones disagrees. The notion that Bendapudi was making a deft marketing move is absurd, he said.
“Nobody makes a proclamation like that for PR purposes in Kentucky. So, push that one off the table,” Jones said. It’s more likely, he said, that she was committed but did not have the support or time to bring the plan to fruition.
In an August 2022 op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Jones argued his school’s aspiration to be the “premier antiracist university” was “over.” With Bendapudi gone, university leaders were no longer behind the effort, he wrote.
“People can criticize Neeli Bendapudi all they want,” Jones told Spotlight PA. “But no such proclamation was made before she got here, and no such proclamation or follow-up has been made since she’s left. So that, in my thinking, is a feather in her cap.”
Bendapudi unveiled the university’s “Cardinal Anti-Racism Agenda” after the death of Breonna Taylor. CARA sought to make the University of Louisville “the premier anti-racist metropolitan research university in the country.”
‘Bendapudi is the university’
While Bendapudi appeared to be navigating her position’s precarity to the praise of campus and community members, her leadership was challenged in several ongoing lawsuits claiming her choices were, at certain points, retaliation.
One lawsuit, filed in 2019, claims Bendapudi was “aware of the retaliatory and unconstitutional actions” reportedly taken against a University of Louisville psychiatrist after he made transphobic comments during an off-campus panel discussion hosted by a conservative think tank. Among the psychiatrist’s most charged accusations is that the university under Bendapudi’s watch knowingly violated his First Amendment right to free speech. The case is ongoing.
The most high-profile lawsuit was filed in July 2022. A former university lawyer claimed Bendapudi and Smith orchestrated a retaliation scheme against her for reporting possible extortion to law enforcement.
In March 2021, the university’s athletic department sought to terminate two assistant coaches, including Dino Gaudio. Gaudio, in response, allegedly threatened to disclose recruiting violations by the university if he was not paid a year-and-a-half salary as a compensation package.
Amy Shoemaker, a deputy general counsel and associate athletic director, alerted campus police of the possible threat. The FBI later became involved in the case, according to the lawsuit.
Shoemaker’s decision upset Bendapudi, according to court records, as the president was concerned in part about negative publicity.
In an alleged phone call between Shoemaker and Smith, the president’s chief of staff reportedly told Shoemaker she should not have reported the extortion attempt to law enforcement. The decision to involve the police is Bendapudi’s decision, Smith reportedly said.
“Bendapudi is the university,” Smith told Shoemaker, according to court records.
Weeks later, the lawsuit says, Bendapudi confronted Shoemaker during a video call with other university leaders.
“Amy!” Bendapudi said, according to court records. “You cannot trust the FBI!”
Later that day, Bendapudi texted Shoemaker an apology. “I just am worried. Appreciate you,” Bendapudi wrote at the end of the message.
Shoemaker claims the university then cut her out of communications central to her job and removed other responsibilities. Shoemaker was let go from Louisville in late 2021, according to the lawsuit.
The university, in its own court filings, denied nearly all of Shoemaker’s allegations.
In an internal memo sent to Penn State trustees and obtained by Spotlight PA, Bendapudi denied the lawsuit’s claims and said she and Smith were looking forward to the facts coming out. She told the trustees she hoped they would not comment to any media about the situation.
Bendapudi told Spotlight PA it would be “inappropriate to comment” on the lawsuits.
“My commitment to ethical conduct and treating people the right way has been unwavering throughout my career,” she said. “… I have and will continue to lead with integrity and have complete confidence in my senior vice president and chief of staff to do the same.”
Penn State Board of Trustees Chair Matthew Schuyler, in a university-provided statement, said the board has complete trust in Bendapudi and Smith.
Away to Happy Valley
When Burse — the Louisville trustee who helped oversee Bendapudi’s hiring — stepped off a plane in late 2021 and reconnected his phone he got “the shock of my life.”
Bendapudi was leaving Kentucky.
Just a few months earlier, Burse worked on the committee that offered Bendapudi a five-year contract extension. The school was on a good trajectory, he said. There was work to be done, sure, but a sense of stability had returned.
Penn State previously approached Bendapudi about taking over as president, and she declined. But something changed, and, on Dec. 9, 2021, during a special meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees, Bendapudi was selected as Penn State’s 19th president.
Her speech from the lectern at The Penn Stater Hotel & Conference Center was among her first moments in Centre County. She had never visited State College before accepting the job, instead sending Smith and members of her family on an all-night drive to scope out central Pennsylvania.
Those in Louisville are left to debate what could have been if Bendapudi had stayed — if she had more resources, more support, more time.
“My focus was on the goals of the university,” Bendapudi told Spotlight PA, “which I was committed to upholding, and I approached my decisions based on how to move the institution forward and keep it thriving.”
Bendapudi, 59, said in September she plans to retire as a Nittany Lion.
“I think you’ll see what she’s really committed to at Penn State, if she stays,” Jones said.
In some ways, history is already repeating itself for the new president. She is the first woman and first person of color to hold the role at Penn State. Early in her presidency, she chose not to fire a professor who got into a physical altercation with a student during a COVID-19 vaccine rally, an incident that received national attention. In October, Bendapudi announced the university was canceling its planned Center for Racial Justice, instead saying it would invest in existing diversity efforts. She is also taking the helm of a university facing a $127 million budget deficit she did not anticipate. Faculty morale is low.
A board of trustees is again turning to Bendapudi to fix it.