Neeli Bendapudi's legacy at U of L: stability after turmoil
When Neeli Bendapudi arrived at the University of Louisville, the school was in trouble on numerous fronts. It had a cash flow problem, its academic accreditation had recently been imperiled. And morale was suffering from a string of scandals that unfolded under Bendapudi’s predecessor James Ramsey, including the use of sex workers in athletic recruiting, a pay-to-play scheme, and a misuse of the school’s endowment funds.
But Bendapudi righted the ship, according to U of L Board of Trustees Chair Mary Nixon.
“I think we all know this institution is in far better shape now than it was when she got here,” Nixon told reporters on Monday, when the board accepted Bendapudi’s resignation.
After serving as president for three-and-a-half years, Bendapudi will leave U of L to take the top position at Penn State. Lori Gonzalez will serve as interim president while the board searches for a permanent replacement.
Nixon is among many in the U of L community who saw Bendapudi as a stabilizing force after a period of turmoil under her predecessor.
For Nixon, one of Bendapudi’s most important legacies is the leadership team she hired to lead the university. That team included Gonzalez as Executive Vice President and Provost. She also said Bendapudi was able to repair strained relationships and shore up finances.
“I think at a time when the university lost confidence in itself, she brought that back,” Nixon told WFPL.
Many students agree, according to Student Body President Ugonna Okorie.
Okorie said Bendapudi “changed the culture of the university,” and boosted morale. She remembered the first day Bendapudi was hired, and the new president threw up the Louisville Ls—the school’s signature hand gesture—on not one, but both hands.
“She did like the double Ls up, and you really don’t see that often,” Okorie said. “Everytime I think of Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, I think of every time she would say ‘Go Cards!,’ it was two Ls, not just one.”
Bendapudi, who came to America from India in her 20s, was the university’s first woman and first person of color to serve as president. Okorie said that meant a lot to students, even though it was long overdue.
“Especially as a reflection of the community that we have in the greater Louisville area,” she said. “I always say people deserve to be led by leadership that looks like them.”
When she was hired to lead U of L out of a period of turmoil, Bendapudi said she experienced a phenomenon known as “the glass cliff.”
“Boards or groups tend to pick leaders who are non-normative–don’t look like everybody who went before them–when things are tough … when things are really really bad,” she explained on the podcast Where Y’all Really From earlier this year.
The glass cliff is a problem, Bendapudi said, because it stacks the odds against women and people of color when they finally do make it to the corner office.
Bendapudi may have faced a glass cliff, but by many accounts she managed to walk a tightrope across. Many remember with pride her decision in 2018 to remove Papa John’s name from Cardinal stadium, after the company founder used the N-word on a conference call.
“By taking this action we renew our community’s commitment to speaking up when it matters, doing what is right and coming together as one team,” Bendapudi said when she announced the decision back in 2018.
Many also praise Bendapudi’s 2019 decision to acquire the KentuckyOne Health system. The deal required a $50 million state loan to purchase a four-hospital system that was hemorrhaging money. But the move saved hundreds of jobs in health care and preserved needed medical services for the region.
“It was a very risky, bold move, and it’s turned out very well for the university and the community,” Nixon said.
For David Schultz, biology professor and the president of the faculty senate, the hospital acquisition will likely be the most important piece of Bendapudi’s legacy.
“To me that really will be a long-term positive effect that the university will have,” he said.
He also praised her handling of the coronavirus. The university has a 92% vaccination rate among staff and students, and Schultz said the school’s enrollment losses were “far less” than at other institutions.
Schultz said morale and trust were improving under Bendapudi. In a departure from past administrations, Schultz said she sought out input from faculty and staff in big decisions, such as budgeting.
“She was really a breath of fresh air,” he said.
But issues remained, especially when it came to pay.
“Although our finances of our university have increased, our compensation has not kept up with the cost of living for faculty and staff,” he said. He also pointed to tuition hikes for students.
He said Bendapudi’s unexpected departure could be another setback for faculty’s relationship with the administration.
Okorie said it came as a shock for students as well.
“But I do see a lot of potential with the university moving forward,” she said.
Nixon and Schultz said the board of trustees is beginning its search for Bendapudi’s replacement, but there’s no timeline for their decision yet.
Amina Elahi contributed to this story.