It all started with a covert operation of sorts. Just before students flocked back to campus to begin the 2021 fall semester, a trio with a slightly different mission departed from Louisville, Ky., on an all-night road trip to State College. After a day of work, Sirisha Bendapudi, Kyle Ladd, and Michael Wade Smith had been charged with a weekend task: Drive to University Park, check out as much of the campus and community as you can, and report back.
The request came from the University of Louisville’s then-president, Neeli Bendapudi—also known as Sirisha’s mom, Ladd’s mother-in-law, and Smith’s boss. (Smith was her chief of staff at Louisville at the time.) Unbeknownst to all but a few, Bendapudi was being recruited to become a candidate for the Penn State presidency; but even at that early stage in the confidential process, she felt some uneasiness about her candidacy if her family ultimately wasn’t interested in relocating with her.
It’s worth noting that Sirisha, Bendapudi’s only child, is a corporate attorney for a global law firm, and that she and Ladd—who also lived in Louisville—had just become parents to their son, Arjun, in February 2021. Leaving her first grandchild behind, even for a considerable career move, was a deal-breaker for Bendapudi. So, in the dark of that August night, Sirisha, Ladd, and Smith arrived in State College around 1 a.m. The next day, they walked all around downtown, strolled throughout campus, tried a few local restaurants, and comprehensively vetted the central Pennsylvania locale.
“One of the things I distinctly remember was that I was like, ‘I don’t have any association with this campus, and I feel pride,’” Smith says. “But also, the handrails at Penn State are the shiniest, cleanest handrails I’ve ever seen. It says to me that there’s something really healthy happening in the organization, that there is pride. … The attention to detail at the level of a clean handrail means that you get to solve problems at a higher, more strategic level. It was a beautiful thing.”
Meanwhile, Sirisha and Ladd visited the Arboretum, the Creamery, and the pocket parks and green spaces dotting the State College neighborhoods, and they admired the rolling mountains that surround the valley. After a whirlwind 24 hours in town and more than 16 hours on the road, all three could envision themselves living in a setting they found idyllic, yet thriving with activity. “I FaceTimed [my mom] as we were driving back to Louisville,” Sirisha says. “I said, ‘It’s very, very pretty, and if this is the move for you, we are absolutely in.’”
As lifelong academics, Bendapudi and her husband, Venkat (a retired business professor and his wife’s No. 1 supporter), had been happy to exist on pretty much any college campus, whether it was Louisville, where she had been president since 2018; the University of Kansas, where Bendapudi was provost and executive vice chancellor after serving as dean of the business school; or Ohio State and Texas A&M, where she had been a marketing professor. In fact, until Dec. 13, 2021, the day that Bendapudi, 58, was officially—and unanimously—appointed Penn State’s 19th president by the Board of Trustees, the couple had never visited the university or spent much time at all in Pennsylvania. When the offer was finally made, she accepted it, sight unseen.
“My whole family, we thought about it long and hard, because this is something where you’ve got to be all in,” says Bendapudi, whose mother, Padma Thippavajjala, will also make the move to Schreyer House, the presidential residence. “And I think I’m in a stage of my life where I feel comfortable saying, yes, I want to make sure that the choices I make are good for me professionally, but also good for the family—because we bring our whole selves to work.”
Shortly after that day in December, Bendapudi started the transition to her new role, which she officially assumed on May 9: She embarked on a listening tour of campuses, meeting with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members at each stop. It was a crash course not only in learning more about the unique culture throughout each region, but how each campus serves local needs and contributes to the local economy.
The campuses were one of the major draws of the job, Bendapudi says, along with the university’s health system, in which she sees the potential to boost its profile and leverage its reach to improve the well-being of people in every corner of the state. “There’s no institution in the country like this—96 percent of the citizens in the commonwealth live within 30 miles of a Penn State campus,” she says. “University Park may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but you can get the same Penn State degree and world-class education in a much smaller environment. My gosh, some of these campuses, they’re just so beautiful.”
On a Monday in early April, Bendapudi and a small group of administrators—including Smith, whom she’s hired in a newly created role of senior vice president and chief of staff—had visits planned for the day at the Hazleton and Schuylkill campuses. As Bendapudi entered the chancellor’s office on the Hazleton campus, situated on a mountaintop, she was equally thrilled by the oversized picture window offering a stunning panoramic view of the Conyngham Valley and the Rembrandt hanging next to it, a gift from a longtime campus donor. Nature and art are two of Bendapudi’s greatest loves and she’ll stop to admire either, any chance she gets.
“Those are truly her vices—she doesn’t have a secret wine collection hobby or anything like that,” Sirisha says. “If you want to talk about the things she does to de-stress? They’re all the best things that you could possibly do for the human brain.”
And make no mistake, stress comes with leading an $8 billion enterprise with more than 90,000 students, two dozen campuses, 34,000 employees, more than 700,000 living alumni, a multihospital health system, and a self-sustaining $165 million athletic department—all following a pandemic that has altered the landscape of higher education forever. Recurring concerns surfaced at every stop on the tour: faculty burnout and retention; student mental health decline; student debt; diversity, equity, and inclusion; as well as the impending “demographic cliff,” a forecast 10-year nationwide sharp decline in traditional college-age student enrollments beginning in 2025—a result of the drop-off in birth rates following the 2008 financial crisis.
Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh professor of anthropology and a member of the presidential recruitment and selection committee, recognizes that it’s a precarious era for all college and university leaders. Helping to choose the one who will guide Penn State through it was daunting, but Bendapudi’s unique academic expertise in marketing and consumer behavior, as well as her proven track record in vastly improving Louisville’s DEI efforts and enrollment, made her candidacy rise to the top quickly.
“Equality, inclusivity, and diversity have been added to many universities’ goals in the last decade, but they have been part of Dr. Bendapudi’s ideology of leadership since the beginning—it’s not just something she recently adopted,” Jablonski says. “She is really good news for Penn State, which has benefited from having very good leaders, but there’s never been so timely a choice as Dr. Bendapudi.”
In front of a crowd of faculty members, Bendapudi is direct and frank with her responses—unafraid to admit when she doesn’t know an answer or needs more time to learn. She doesn’t shy away from tough topics, but she is also quick with a self-deprecating reprieve from some of the seriousness. The Schuylkill campus decorated the walkways with signs and blue and white balloons to welcome her. One sign read: “Schuylkill: Tough to pronounce but easy to love,” to which she later quipped: “Kind of like Bendapudi: also kind of tough to pronounce, but hopefully easy to love.”
She comes most alive among the students, sneaking into labs and classrooms to say hello and to ask what they are learning, making sure to note her attendance when the campus’s first four-year cohort of nursing students graduate with their bachelor’s degrees from Schuylkill in 2025.
She slipped into Hazleton’s Math Dimension room in the renovated library, a space where students can study and get academic support, and was instantly recognized by one exuberant sophomore, who said it was more exciting than a chance to meet “the real president.” On the way out, Bendapudi told him to keep studying, because she was excited to get to sign his diploma in two years. “She really does have that superb human quality that used to be called ‘the common touch,’” Jablonski says. “She doesn’t connect in just sort of a handshaking way; it’s a meaningful way, it’s sincere. She can establish a closeness with everyone.”
When Bendapudi says she wholeheartedly believes in the Penn State land-grant mission, which promises education and public services to the citizens of the commonwealth and beyond, it’s not just rhetoric. It’s her life experience. At 5 years old, living in Andhra Pradesh, a coastal Indian state, she says, her family had fallen on hard times. Although she didn’t feel as though they were going without necessities, she and her two younger sisters watched their father, Ramesh Thippavajjala, leave for the U.S. in search of an advanced degree that would help him lift the family out of poverty. For four years he studied at the University of Kansas, earning a Ph.D. in English literature. It wasn’t easy for the three young children, but it immediately opened his eldest daughter’s eyes to the transformational power of higher education.
“I never went hungry, and I don’t know how my mother managed that, but the entire family helped to get my father to the University of Kansas,” Bendapudi says, adding that her mother also eventually earned a Ph.D., in British literature. “So for four years we didn’t see him—he couldn’t travel back and forth, and we didn’t have a phone. Every several months we would go to our neighbor’s house to get a phone call from him.”
When Thippavajjala returned, he became a professor at Andhra University, where Bendapudi eventually earned her bachelor’s in English and an MBA. It was also there that she met Venkat. The couple married in 1984, then headed to the University of Kansas, where they each earned a Ph.D. They became American citizens in 2005, during their stint at Ohio State. “I think I always knew I wanted to be in education. I did not know whether it would be as a teacher or as a professor, but I also knew that business fascinated me,” says Bendapudi, who often describes herself as a “recovering banker” following her role as a vice president at Huntington National Bank in 2007.
The significance of becoming a female trailblazer and the first person of color to achieve many of the positions she’s held throughout her career—including Penn State’s president—isn’t lost on Bendapudi, but it isn’t a fact she dwells on, either. If her example and achievements inspire others, she welcomes the opportunity. “I used to bristle a little bit because I used to say, ‘I want people to know I got picked because I was the best and not because of this.’ But the more I heard from especially students, I realized that it does matter. I told them that I don’t think it’s true that you cannot be what you cannot see, otherwise you’d never have a first of anything,” she says. “But I do think it’s harder to be something you cannot see. If you’re not a typical leader, there is importance to that. I’ve come to embrace it. We desperately need leadership of many different kinds. We need everybody to say it’s in our common best interest to tap into skills and leadership across the spectrum.”
Erin Boas ’22 Lib, the 2021–22 University Park Undergraduate Association president and the only student member of the presidential recruitment and selection committee, was sitting in her office at the HUB the day the university announced Bendapudi’s appointment, when a female student walked through the door, crying.
“I’ll never forget that interaction. [The student] said, ‘I have never before thought that I would ever see this at this university, especially in my time as a student—someone who looks like me, advocating for me,’” Boas says. “I think that especially some of the pockets of the student population that might feel like they haven’t been reached out to before, Dr. Bendapudi is already actively engaging and seeking out the voices that haven’t been part of the conversations.”
Boas, who graduated in May with a degree in international politics and economics, believes that under Bendapudi’s leadership, many Penn State students will thrive in ways they never have. “She knows how to connect with people, and especially coming out of the pandemic, all people want is to feel a connection—students just want to feel like they belong.”
Bendapudi has described the traditional call-and-response, “We are … Penn State,” as not just a football cry but, to her, more of a “sacred trust” that the university can offer that community and connection for all who seek it.
“I think of all the things we talked about that the pandemic exacerbated, the isolation, the stress, the frustrations, the reentry into the workplace for many. It’s causing a lot of stressors,” Bendapudi says. “I’ve studied resiliency a lot because it fascinates me, and we know that the keys to resilience are a sense of purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing? Engaging in meaningful support gives us that sense of belonging.”
On a personal level, Sirisha vouches for her mother’s attention to connection. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sirisha found pregnancy lonely and isolating. Her mother, as busy as ever, set aside two hours every Sunday for brunch at her house. “We would gather around the table and talk about everything,” Sirisha says. “She made sure that those two hours every Sunday were sacred and set aside for our family. It made me feel like I had community around me. She’s so very, very good at building community regardless of the circumstances.”
For his part, Smith, who was recruited to the Kansas business school by Bendapudi, says he followed her to Pennsylvania because he still has so much to learn from her. He continues to marvel at her ability to sit on decisions until she has the right answer—then own those choices whether they are met with criticism or praise.
“She’s a good human, sometimes to a fault. She’s someone who you could insult at 8 a.m. and by noon she would’ve forgotten,” Smith says. “She’s always the most ethical person in the room and has this dogged commitment to remaining uncertain, without judgment, just taking in information until she’s ready to decide. That’s a different spirit, but it’s more inviting; it’s more welcoming, and I’ve seen it play out in beautiful ways.”
Bendapudi insists that her tenure can’t go wrong if students remain at the center of every decision she makes and every initiative she undertakes. She says her “family” has greatly expanded since the August day she sent Sirisha, Ladd, and Smith on that scouting mission. And she’s not afraid to ask for help making sure her time at Penn State moves the institution forward in the ways it needs to, not just to survive the challenges ahead, but grow and prosper under her leadership.
“When I spend time with a student, it gives me the motivation of why I’m doing what I’m doing. You look at them, and we cannot even predict what this education will do for them. It’s not even just a job, it’s about who they are and what they are going to become,” Bendapudi says. “When you come to Penn State, the world comes to you. I find that incredibly inspiring.”
Erin Strout is a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Ariz.