When we sat down with Neeli Bendapudi in late April, just shy of two years since she formally took over as Penn State’s 19th president, protests at campuses around the country were making national headlines. A day earlier, she had convened a town hall to discuss enrollment challenges facing the commonwealth campus system. That night, she would join others from the university community for the annual Night of Remembrance, a memorial service in honor of students who have died over the past year. Spring commencement, always one of the highlights of the academic calendar, was less than two weeks away.

It was a snapshot of the unrelenting demands—often difficult, occasionally joyous—on Bendapudi’s time; as she alluded to during a 45-minute conversation in her Old Main office, one day in charge of such a large and complex institution is never the same as the last. In a wide-ranging interview, she spoke about budget and funding challenges, the importance of research prominence, and the focus on student success that she says provides her purpose.


photo of exterior of president's office by Steve Tressler


PENN STATER: You’ve taken an ambitious approach to getting the legislature’s attention on how comparatively underfunded Penn State is. How hopeful are you that that message is getting through in Harrisburg?

BENDAPUDI: I feel much more hopeful than when I started. Earlier this year was the second time I got to testify before the legislature. The first time, I didn’t feel like everyone fully grasped the concern: that Penn State remains the lowest- funded university in the commonwealth on a per-in-state-student basis. This time, I’ve had a lot less pushback on the fact that there is a problem. I don’t expect big changes overnight, but I’m extremely hopeful that as we talk about a performance-based funding model for the state [see sidebar, p. 40], it’ll be the right thing. No matter what metrics they would set, Penn State will rise to the challenge. So, I’m cautiously optimistic. What I’m very much hoping is that more Pennsylvanians, more Penn State alumni, get involved. We have about 400,000 alumni in Pennsylvania and more than 50,000 Pennsylvania residents currently enrolled across all campuses and levels of education. Legislators need to hear from constituents that fair funding and greater investment matters.


PS: To be clear, you had a sense initially that a lot of the legislators didn’t understand that there was an issue with Penn State’s funding?

BENDAPUDI: What was stunning to me was that many in our own community did not know—our faculty, our staff, our students. When [funding] has been the same way for a long time, it just perpetuates inequities.


PS: You’ve been very direct in asking for help, for Penn Staters to join that advocacy effort. What is the specific message you want people to share?

BENDAPUDI: Say a parent has four children, and they send one to each of our state-affiliated schools [Penn State, Pitt, Temple] and to a PASSHE [Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education] school. If they come to Penn State, the state is only investing $5,757 per child. But if they have another child going to a PASSHE school, that child is getting $3,000 more per year. If they have a child that’s going to Temple or Pitt, [they’re getting more]. Why are some of them being disadvantaged just because they come to us? We’re educating more Pennsylvanians, more first-generation students, more Pell Grant–eligible students. I want the outcomes to be important—what is the state getting for what they’re investing?


PS: Is there a sense that Penn State’s size has on some level worked against it in that way?

BENDAPUDI: Not that it’s worked against us, but that people don’t realize that for any university, large or small, our true discretionary dollars are education and general funds, which is the money that we get from the state and the money we get from tuition. And we can’t keep raising tuition—we’ve got to be more affordable. Another way to put this is, if you look at the total budgets of the education and general funds for our peers and for us, the state has paid a much larger percentage for them, and the per-student burden therefore goes down. And just to clarify on that: The interesting thing is, we are putting in more money so that our in-state tuition is about the same. We’re not letting down our students, but it means having fewer resources to invest elsewhere.


blue outline of Old Main



PS: There’s been a lot of attention paid to your administration’s efforts to bring the university budget in line with revenue. Obviously that’s a difficult process. How do you view the progress in this area so far, and what do you see as the biggest remaining challenges?

BENDAPUDI: We are making very good progress, primarily from the strategic hiring freeze, other nonpersonnel savings, and investments that are driving revenue. For fiscal year 2026, we will have a balanced budget. The challenge, of course, is that it’s not enough if we just balance the budget; that means revenues equal our expenses. The challenge is, every single year, if for our faculty and staff we want to give at least a 3% increase for cost of living, merit, everything together—that’s about 50 million a year. On top of that, in Pennsylvania, health care costs for organizations like ours are going up on average 9% a year. We can’t pass that on to our students. That’s why I’m saying we’ve got to be strategic to create a sustainable future for Penn State. After we balance the budget for one year, you can’t have the expenses keep going up without corresponding increases in revenue. For our alumni, philanthropy becomes much more important than ever before, and it also becomes important for the state to pick up a little more, to get us on the right trajectory.


President Bendapudi sitting across the table from Ryan Jones as the two converse, photo by Steve Tressler


PS: I want to ask about the campus system. There’s a very real enrollment challenge for many of Penn State’s campuses. Can you expand on some of the possible solutions that might help ensure the stability of the system?

BENDAPUDI: If you look over the past couple of decades, our enrollment across campuses has fallen by 30%. While seven campuses are projecting small enrollment increases for the next academic year, there continue to be significant declines at others. That’s a concern. Please know that I know how important these campuses are to their communities and to fulfilling the university’s access mission. They were a big reason why I took this job, because you talk about the land-grant impact—you see [it] on our campuses, and we have the data we can share with you. We have many campuses [13] where about 50% of our students are either from underrepresented minoritized groups or are first-generation college students. That is stunning, it’s very important. We are making a difference. But there are a handful of campuses where, if you don’t have the critical mass, then we need to say, what else can we do? So we are looking at everything. Incorporating vocational education at the campuses to support local and regional industries and trades is just one example of the type of out-of-the-box thinking that is taking place. We need more revenue sources, and we are social, cultural, economic centers of those communities. We are in a difficult environment; all options are on the table, but closing a campus would be way down the list. [In May, the university announced a Voluntary Separation Incentive Program for full-time faculty and staff at commonwealth campuses “who wish to pursue retirement or other professional opportunities outside Penn State.”] Part of what I’m hoping is that the state realizes, what’s the hole that would be left if Penn State is not supported?


PS: I think there are still a lot of misperceptions about the campus system. What’s the biggest thing you wish people understood that they might not?

BENDAPUDI: One of the things I learned when I went on my tour [of campuses] when I started here is that people did not realize that you can get a four-year degree at every single one of our campuses. Even in relatively small communities, people there didn’t even know that you could stay there. In fact, 46% of first-year residential students start at a commonwealth campus, where they either finish their degree or transition to another Penn State campus to complete their degree. But we have to work differently, and the chancellors are all working so hard to say, how do we make sure we differentiate and support [what the campuses do]? For example, collaborating and looking at articulation agreements with the state’s community colleges to expand educational opportunities and create more affordable pathways to a Penn State degree. What else can we be doing to support? I want to make sure that the students who are coming for a Penn State degree truly believe and experience it as a Penn State experience.


PS: Related to all this is the enrollment cliff, a demographic drop-off of potential college enrollees. Pennsylvania is one of the states where that’s a real threat. What steps are you taking to make sure Penn State is positioned to compete in this new reality?

BENDAPUDI: Wonderful question, and this is true for all of these campuses. The reality is, this enrollment cliff has been predicted for a while. You don’t produce 18-year-olds overnight. We’ve all known for the past 20 years. It’s not just about the enrollment now, but what are the trends in the community? What are the competitors? So, we’re investing in high-demand programs that align with the state’s workforce needs to prepare students for sustainable careers in Pennsylvania. We also are thinking about how, in Pennsylvania, supposedly there’s over a million people who have some college, but they never finished their degree. What can we do to make these campuses vibrant and attractive to adult learners? What about people who are in the community that, if it’s not a full degree, could use reskilling and upskilling?


PS: Promoting research has been another priority for you. Penn State has a terrific reputation in many areas.

BENDAPUDI: Last year our research expenditures grew by double digit percentages, reaching a record high of $1.239 billion; it’s a testament to the dedication and enterprise of our faculty, students, and staff, and a reflection of the confidence of our sponsors in our ability to successfully address some of the world’s most pressing problems.


PS: And I think, for the average alum whose experience was earning an undergraduate degree, they may not get exactly why this is so important to Penn State.

BENDAPUDI: One thing that I think is so important is that our students are learning from people who are doing cutting-edge work. They’re learning things that won’t even be on the market for a while, right? For example, Jeff Catchmark ’90 Eng, his work creating a unique foam to replace disposable containers in the food service industry and developing a biofoam pad that could replace cotton bandages and revolutionize wound treatment. It’s fascinating. And so, these young people are getting these research experiences that won’t appear in textbooks for years. And they’re also learning something that I think is very important, whether it’s in the arts, in the humanities, anywhere—they’re learning the pursuit of truth, if you will, or the pursuit of understanding. I think that’s part of what higher education is supposed to be about.

We’re also supporting a lot of public-impact research. In June, along with the Pew foundation, I am bringing together a group of presidents from across the country to look at public-impact research. When we say research, everything we do here is so cutting edge, it helps economic development. But there’s also a role for public-impact research. In all of these communities, with our campuses, that’s why I get excited. They have the ability to say, what’s a problem in our community, and how can we bring our students and faculty and staff and community together to solve them? That whole idea of public-impact research, we’re doing a lot. There are wonderful stories. When people show up to the football games, our top donors, I always tell them about research at Penn State. Because I want them to know what unbelievable things we’re doing here.


blue outline of Old Main



PS: Another priority, and something you’ve already mentioned here, is the importance of the university’s land-grant mission. Can you talk about any particular initiatives, either since you’ve arrived or maybe that are upcoming, that highlight that in a particular way?

BENDAPUDI: Absolutely. We’re supposed to make a difference for Pennsylvania. That’s why we continue to invest in programs like the Invent Penn State entrepreneurship network, provide agricultural extension and know-how in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, and conduct research that serves the greater good across so many disciplines. We launched two new funding opportunities to support faculty and students at our commonwealth campuses to partner with local individuals and organizations to carry out work that benefits communities and improves the well-being of residents. The Presidential Public Impact Research Awards program supports teams that are already conducting research that benefits their communities alongside community partners, and the Commonwealth Campus Undergraduate Community-Engaged Research Award program is specifically for undergraduate students to participate in such research. That’s building up the muscle of all of Pennsylvania to tackle big-picture issues. And our health care enterprise is often not understood as such a key part of our land-grant mission. In fact, one of the things that I’ve made a priority—we have a [new] dean of medicine, Dr. Karen Kim, who is going to be focusing on rural health. And when I say rural health, it’s economic health. It’s psychological health. It’s the spiritual health, and certainly the physical health of these communities.


PS: In many ways, it’s a challenging time in higher ed generally—budget challenges, political considerations, protests on campuses around the country. You’ve got so much day to day you’re trying to focus on, just running a university, and so many other factors that impact higher ed. How much of a challenge is it to balance all that?

BENDAPUDI: I love 99.9% of it. But someone sent this to me, and I got such a kick out of it—this is [former] Chancellor William McRaven of the University of Texas system: “The toughest job in the nation is the one of an academic or health institution president.” I have both. This is a four-star admiral, a Navy SEAL, and his last job before that was, he planned and supervised the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. So when a decorated Navy SEAL tells you that the toughest job is being a university president, that’s saying something. This was a few years ago. But the beauty of it, and the reason it’s tough is, everybody feels such affiliation. We are a $9.4 billion enterprise. If you think about it, you’re a CEO. That’s a part. But the uniqueness, the specialness of a university, is everyone feels that link to it. If you graduated from here, it’s like you bought stock in this company. You care what happens at Penn State. We always talk about the students and their four years, six years, eight years here. Think of faculty and staff. They dedicate their lives to this place. So while it’s a challenge, that’s also a precious blessing.


PS: Do you have a sense of how much of your time is taken up by things other than the day-to-day running of the university? I’d guess it depends on the day.

BENDAPUDI: There’s never really a routine day. That’s why the team becomes so significant. There’s not a day that goes by where we’re not discussing students in one way or the other. But if I were to look at a typical day, if we’re talking about AI, how are we going to make sure that our students are prepared for the future? Do we have the IT infrastructure for what the students expect? How are we doing on connecting them with careers, or talking to donors? That tends to be a really big thing. The same for research, as you said. Are we going to be attractive enough to keep faculty and staff here?

If I think of how I spend my time, truly, every decision I need to make, I try to think about, will this make this a better place in which to learn? I [say] purposely “learn,” because it could be faculty, staff, students. Are they learning something every day? Am I trying my best to make it a place where you want to work? How do we become a place where we get the best and brightest to come and stay and grow here? And then of course none of that would be possible if people don’t see us as a great place in which to invest. So pretty much my whole day revolves around how I can help make Penn State stronger in all of these domains.

I will say, I teach a [Presidential Leadership Academy] class, only one a year, but I see my students everywhere. That’s the beauty of Penn State. As large as we are, I go to events, I see people I recognize. That makes all the difference in the world.


PS: That’s something I wanted to ask about. How often are you able to do something—interact with students, attend an event, whatever—that makes it worth all the challenges?

BENDAPUDI: Almost every day. That’s the truth—when I have a chance to interact with students and I can see the difference Penn State is making for them. Every one of us, [no matter] our job status, if there is a tough point, you’ve got to go back to your purpose. Why am I doing this? What’s the bigger picture that keeps us resilient? For me, it’s impact on students. That really makes a difference. And sometimes it’s striking up a conversation with the student I see, someone will recognize me and say hello, and I love to ask them how they’re doing, what they’re doing.

Recently, I was part of the planting of the fourth-generation Old Willow. I watched students from EcoAction, the university’s oldest student-run environmental group, plant a sapling on the Old Main lawn. The tree’s historical significance, the collaboration between EcoAction and staff from the OPP to lead its replanting, the ceremony itself—for some reason I can’t quite explain, it was all so moving to me. Being a part of it, especially observing our students taking such care to preserve a longstanding legacy, was very special. I told the students that I expect them to come back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the replanting, and I would join them in spirit.


wider shot of Bendapudi and Jones in conversation by Steve Tressler
PRIORITIZING STUDENT OUTCOMES: Committed to keeping her focus on the “bigger picture,” Bendapudi says, “for me, it’s the impact on students.” Steve Tressler.


PS: Campus climate remains a focal point in higher ed, particularly around issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and it’s been a challenge here. Where do you feel we’ve seen progress in that area, and where would you say the biggest challenges remain?

BENDAPUDI: This is so critical to me, and has been for decades. We have so much more to go. We have to make progress in terms of, what is higher education about? Higher education is about transforming lives. For me as an immigrant, when I think of the American dream, it’s the idea that your kids will have a better future than you do, at heart. And education is such an important pathway to that. And when I say that, it’s not just about making a living. It’s about the good life, right? It’s about—I’m a nerd. I have philosophy books on my desk. But when I think about this, how are we going to not just talk about it? Talking about it is important, acknowledging is important, [whether it’s] racial equity, gender equity, gender identity equity, LGBTQ issues, veterans, adult learners, people with disabilities. But it’s, how can we create an environment where someone can bring their whole self to work or to the classroom and be the best that they can be because they’re having that support? I am very, very focused on making sure we deliver on these promises. We’ve become one of the first to have openly, up on our website, our graduation rate gaps. We are Penn State; we should be doing better. We need to do better at recruiting and retaining faculty across all disciplines and at all ranks, that can inspire students.

To me, it’s not true that you cannot be what you cannot see, or you wouldn’t have a Colin Powell, or the first of anything. But it’s a lot harder to try to be something where you never see somebody that looks like you or is like you in those positions of power. I think we still have a long ways to go. But this is very important to me, and I discuss that quite a bit with everyone who’s reporting to me.


PS: Intercollegiate athletics are in a period of transition, from expansion and realignment, NIL, and a sense that there’s greater change to come in the near future. A lot of it seems likely to further separate the “haves” from the “have nots.” How well situated do you feel Penn State is to remain among the haves in college sports?

BENDAPUDI: I am the Big Ten select representative to the College Football Playoff, so that’s good, both to represent the Big Ten’s interests, and certainly to look out for Penn State. I do think that it’s important that people recognize, when they think about college athletics, that it’s 29 [Division I] sports that we have here, and that so many young people are able to take advantage of that avenue to come here and thrive. We are very fortunate that we are one of the few athletics departments in the country that actually are self-sufficient, so that no tuition dollars or state dollars are going to subsidize them. In fact, we actually benefit by having this, by the scholarships they provide, the economic development for the region, the brand. So I feel very good about where we are. I also think the conferences provide tremendous value. The Big Ten Academic Alliance, people don’t quite realize how critical that is, where presidents connect with other presidents, provosts with provosts, CFOs, deans. That type of activity matters a great deal.


PS: This goes back to research—

BENDAPUDI: One hundred percent. Our research leaders get to meet with their counterparts, and talk and compare and benchmark and build partnerships, so those become critical. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that what we do first and foremost is prepare students for success. Whether you are a college athlete or a pro, there is a time when you have to say that part of your life is done. We prepare you for success—now, next, and beyond. That’s what higher education is to me.


blue outline of Old Main



PS: You’re coming up on two years in this job.

BENDAPUDI: Yes, May 9.


PS: I assume it’s flown right by.

BENDAPUDI: Absolutely.


PS: What have you been most struck by in that time? A surprise, or just something about this university that’s unique or exceptional.

BENDAPUDI: I’ve been fortunate to be at great institutions and interact with great students, but our students are really rather special. And I think that there’s something in Penn State. I mean, it’s gotta be in the DNA. You see a down-to-earth-ness, if you will. It’s not as much entitlement. It’s like, how can I help? What can I do? I’ve tried to think about it quite seriously; maybe that’s why we produce so many CEOs. They don’t just come and say, here’s a problem. They think about, oh, maybe this is a solution. That orientation of, I’m not just going to bring you a problem. I’m going to think about it.

Faculty and staff are truly dedicated, really are committed to the students, and our alumni. The pride, the sense of family, is palpable. So when you talk about, how do we make an impact on the land-grant mission, go to Ag Progress Days. Just go, and see what Penn State does. We put on the equivalent of a big state fair that’s hosted by one university. And you see the whole cross-section of Pennsylvania coming and benefiting from that. So those are the things—and then the cross-disciplinary research, interdisciplinary research. Penn State without question is one of the world’s best at doing that.


PS: Do you have a sense of why that is?

BENDAPUDI: Excellence in interdisciplinary research is at the heart of our mission, and this institutional structure goes back decades. In fact, I benchmarked Penn State well before I even knew this position was open, or even that I would come here. Our faculty may view their research collaborations as normal, but Penn State’s culture of innovation through interdisciplinary collaborations is an exception; it’s been recognized as such in an article in The Journal of Higher Education that highlighted Penn State as the exception when evaluating the effectiveness of interdisciplinary research.

We do an extraordinary job here. The vision was to design a research enterprise that incentivizes faculty, deans, and administration to start working in a less siloed fashion. It’s [also] partly the funding model. These institutes were created and funded for a long time with the idea of attacking a problem. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d say to students, what problems do you want to solve in the world? And not put you in your disciplinary buckets, but say, you need a biologist. You need an engineer. You need a computer scientist. You need an anthropologist. You need a psychologist. And let you all work together on those problems. At the end of the day, you want the sum to be greater than the individual parts and help advance humanity’s collective knowledge.

We Can Relate

Penn State’s Office of Government and Community Relations makes the case for equal funding for the university.
Ryan Jones '95 Com