For many in the University of Louisville community, the school’s new President Neeli Bendapudi is somewhat of a savior.
After a scandal-ridden few years, it seemed as if no one had anything positive to say about UofL. Then the trustees named Bendapudi president in April. Suddenly, few had anything bad to say.
Students considered Bendapudi to be a breath of fresh air, taking a liking to her less than 24 hours after she was named president. Community members, alumni and pundits seemed to be relieved.
When faced with her first potential scandal — the former trustee and major donor John Schnatter using the N-word in a conference call — Bendapudi moved quickly, renaming the football stadium and removing Schnatter’s name from a center for free enterprise he helped fund within two days.
Again, stakeholders were relieved, praising Bendapudi for her decisive action in a tough situation with potential legal ramifications.
Now, Bendapudi is gearing up for her next big task: UofL’s first day of classes.
“It doesn’t really feel like campus until the students are back, so quite honestly, I’m very excited and anxious for them to be here,” Bendapudi said in a one-on-one interview with Insider Louisville.
The university estimates its incoming freshman class will have 2,800 students, up from past years, with a potential record 22 percent of them being out-of-state students.
Last the provost at the University of Kansas, Bendapudi said there isn’t much of a difference in how she is preparing for her first day as a university president.
“I guess the difference now is as a new president preparing myself for the new year along with them is probably the biggest difference,” Bendapudi said. “So I feel like a freshman in some way.”
Beginning the semester is the next step in Bendapudi’s mission to rebuild the school’s reputation, readjusting its trajectory to focus on making sure UofL is a good place to study, work and invest.
Stakeholders, though, have questions about how exactly Bendapudi is going to accomplish those goals. Here are her answers. The Q&A has been edited for clarity and style.
Insider Louisville: The first day of classes: How are you feeling about them?
Bendapudi: I’m very excited because on a university campus, it’s very funny in the summer, when like first when the students go, everybody says, “OK, take a breath, you know, get ready.” And then the anticipation builds. It doesn’t really feel like campus until the students are back so quite honestly, I’m very excited and anxious for them to be here.
IL: This morning, there was a news release about the incoming freshman class. It mentioned a lot of growth in terms of diversity and out-of-state students. How does growth impact campus?
NB: I think it’s a good thing for everybody. For us, we need for the university to be stable, for the university to be growing — we need, obviously, students. That’s what it’s all about. So having a good-size class helps everybody in terms of defraying costs and making sure we’re viable.
And then the diversity is always a good thing in my mind because as for our in-state students, or for anybody, I always like to say, “You come to Louisville and the world comes to you.” So even if everyone doesn’t have a chance to go study abroad in their very first year, they come here and suddenly they are interacting with young people from all over the world. So I think that that’s a big plus.
IL: And then there’s also a solid block of first-generation students. I was following some live tweets of your speech. You mentioned a mentoring program for them. Can you talk a little bit about what that would entail?
NB: Sure. And then as I said I don’t want to be too premature to talk too much about it, but for next year’s freshman class share what we would like. And then now we already have a lot (to help first-generation students) at the University of Louisville, so I don’t want to imply that this is all brand-new. So it’s building upon what we already have. But we are very interested in, I have some people already working on it, on creating solid mentoring programs for especially first-generation and low-income students.
The logic of that is obviously financial capital that they don’t have and they don’t have the social capital. So one of the examples I like to give is what classes should I take? How do I handle myself? There’s an issue with somebody — how do I work through it? You know, each of us when we have someone in our family that can say, “Hey, I’ve been through it, it’s not bad,” and it makes a big difference. So the mentoring is to make sure that they are connected with the professor for any help, with a peer that can help them walk through it, and then a professional in the community. So I’m trying to make it alliterative so it’s the PPP, but it doesn’t have to be that way, but the whole idea is give them all of the tools that you can and all of the support that you can.
IL: This is your first year as a university president. How is preparing for a new year different from preparing as a provost?
NB: I had an interesting role at the University of Kansas because I was provost and also executive vice chancellor. And the way University of Kansas is set up is a little different from most provost jobs because in addition to responsibility for the academic affairs, I already had student affairs reporting to me and research reporting to me. In that sense, there’s a lot of overlap in the way we are structured.
For me, I guess the difference now is as a new president preparing myself for the new year along with them is probably the biggest difference. So I feel like a freshman in some way. It’s like learning the rhythms of the year.
IL: Did you get to speak to any of the freshmen during orientation?
NB: I did. I would say I addressed them and was able to chat for a few minutes with them so I wouldn’t quite characterize it as speaking with them because they had me come in and address a few groups. But I’ve also been fortunate to either run into students as they’re walking on campus or visit with a few of them.
IL: I understand it’s a tradition for you to share your personal cellphone number with these students. Is that a trend you’ve continued?
NB: Yeah, absolutely.
IL: And have you gotten any calls?
NB: No. What I can tell them is not to call. They usually text, as you know, in this generation. The instructions I’ve given them have always been straightforward — don’t text me where you can find the answer elsewhere. It’s only in an emergency. I’m so grateful students are very respectful of that.
IL: Shifting gears a little bit. UofL’s past couple of years have been pretty scandal-ridden. You handled the Papa John situation, which could have been the next scandal essentially, very decisively. Is that a glimpse into how you would handle another potential scandal?
NB: You know, each situation is so different and so there are so many nuances here. It’s just I think that every situation is unique and needs to be looked at. All I could say to everybody is I’ll do my very best to make sure that we keep the University of Louisville’s best interest at heart, and that starts with our students.
IL: Obviously, the signs are down at the stadium. Is there anything else you need to deal with in terms of removing signage or anything like that?
NB: Not that I’m aware of.
IL: And then you’ve kind of not said if you want to have another sponsor to add something to the Cardinal Stadium name.
NB: I think it’s too premature. I think, at this point, I think Cardinal Stadium it sounds great to me.
IL: One student on Twitter wants to rename Cardinal Stadium after you.
(Bendapudi and UofL spokesman John Karman start laughing.)
NB: Tell them that, uh, no. (more laughter)
IL: You’ve been here for a few months. What’s your best point so far?
NB: I’ve been here for two and a half months, almost three months. And I think what I love the best is the people. And I mean it so sincerely and I’ve said it to friends everywhere. Everyone here has been truly welcoming and very authentic. Everybody genuinely seems to want the university to do well. That’s a very powerful thing. So that’s been great, you know?
IL: And what about the worst?
NB: Sometimes the humidity. (laughs) I should also tell you that any day, I would rather it be too hot than too cold.
IL: At the last board of trustees meeting, I believe it was trustee Raymond Burse mentioned potentially partnering with JCPS for some kind of lab school. Is that something that you all would consider?
NB: Yeah, we’re actually talking about it. I think that trustee Burse what he was talking about was, you know we do so much across so many places — what if we were to focus all of our attention on one area? We actually are taking that pretty seriously and saying what does it mean and how do we get involved.
IL: Next I have some questions that people sent to me on Twitter. So they’re from students and faculty.
NB: I love that, that’s great.
IL: First of all, what is your plan to help recruit and retain staff and students of color?
NB: I think they have a point both on recruit and on retain. On recruit, you know the word of mouth is incredibly powerful. It’s not our advertising but what do students say to one another. We’re all part of different communities. And quite frankly the word of mouth is much more powerful than anything we could say. So hopefully creating an environment where everybody feels welcome and included and respected. So that’s part of what we will do.
For retaining, it’s the same thing. We know that for students anyway, so let’s focus on that when students leave a university, usually, it’s one of three things. It could be academics, it’s financial or it is a sense of belonging. And so we need to address all three for everybody.
That’s not any different to say is the academics at the right level are we able to provide them the resources they need. Financially what are we doing to make sure that a student knows how to navigate the system and find the resources that are out there. But the biggest thing to me is the sense of community. Does each person feel there’s a — what do you call it their group. I don’t know what to — their community. You know the people that they can hang out with, that they look forward to, that they know will be there with — their family. And so to me that’s what we would be focusing on. Honestly, anyone who is a Cardinal, I want them to feel this university belongs to them as much as anybody else. And so that’s the spirit we want to inculcate.
IL: Are there any plans to boost scholarship money for specialty schools like the law school or the medical school?
NB: We’re looking across the board as, you know, the importance of scholarships across the board. We are emphasizing that.
IL: A professor says that faculty morale is at “an all-time low.” How can you help boost that?
NB: I’m a faculty member, I’m proud of it. I’ve gone through the ranks. I know the challenges that faculty face. We’re trying very hard to create more openness. We get into this business because we really care. We want to make a difference in a young person’s life. So my job would be to try to make their lives easier so that they could focus on what they want to do.
So, I’m working very closely with faculty senate, with staff senate. I had my leadership retreat recently with all the deans and vice presidents and made it a point to make sure that faculty and staff senate and student senate leaders were there because openness so that they know what you’re talking about, what they’re focusing on.
Bigger picture, we need to get more resources and that’s something that faculty know. Unfortunately, it’s not in my power to change overnight, but it’s something we will work on creating a climate of shared governance, openness, transparency.
IL: Speaking of resources, you said you would be working with each dean to deal with this 5 percent cut. How is that going?
NB: Clearly, people have had to make hard choices but we created, again, I hope people see it as a pretty transparent system where our provost was able to — I charged her with a pot of money that we said let people apply specifically for recruitment and retention efforts and there was a committee created. So we obviously — there’s a sacrifice I can’t deny that, but we’re trying to ameliorate it the best we can.
We’re also, over the next months, making every effort to increase the resources that go to units.
IL: Do you plan to work with local startups?
NB: Absolutely. We plan to work with businesses in the community period. Startups, midsized companies, large companies — it doesn’t matter.
For startups, it’s important because whenever you look at places that have really taken off, it’s because the university has been an intellectual draw. It’s a magnet for bringing people in and then connecting them out into the community. That’s actually something that drew me to Louisville. I love the fact that you know we’re large enough that we — somebody said this to me, I don’t remember — so not my original saying — that we are large enough to matter but we are small enough we can move, you know we can do it quickly. So I think that we hope to see a lot more engagement with business.
IL: Do you have a say in how the foundation invests its money at all?
NB: Not in how it invests its money because there’s two parts of it. Think of them as the bank that makes sure that they’re giving you the return. And I have to say they are working really hard and I think the world will be happy to see from everything I see.
IL: Is there anything you want to see on how the foundation operates or invests?
NB: I want people to see how the efforts we’ve made to keep it very transparent, very open. Ask me again in a couple of months because there are things in the works where we really are trying very, very hard to set the standard on how to be an open book, so donors know exactly how we’re being good stewards of their money.
IL: In terms of donors, you just had the interim fundraising chief come in. How’s that going? How’s fundraising?
NB: I’m so pleased to have him. We were very fortunate to have somebody in the community already … What I’m excited about is the insights he will bring into best practices and putting in place.
From Day One, I’ve been reaching out as you probably know even before I started. So I’m very pleased. I think that a lot of people are stepping up and saying it’s time to support the university. Quite candidly, we need our friends now more than ever. This is when we need them.
IL: Do you think they will continue to come back?
NB: I do. I have I have great optimism and faith.
IL: You still have several open spots like the provost. Do you feel like you have a lot of freedom in determining your team because you have so many interim spots?
NB: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what happens right when you have a team you can pull together people, get the whole campus excited about the possibility of building a stable team.
IL: Now that school is coming back and faculty are back, who are going to start with in terms of looking?
NB: As a senior leadership team, we’ve been looking at different options and sequencing. I’m glad you’d realize there’s a sequencing because search committees take a lot of the whole system. It’s also a question that we’re working on with the board. By Sept. 1 or so, we’ll have a strategy. I just need to verify with my board before we say what the sequencing is.
IL: How many interim positions do you still have because former interim president Greg Postel filled some of them?
NB: We have a several still who are interim and then we are trying to figure out how to stagger them, how to stage them. We have the provost, we have general counsel, advancement as you just mentioned, research, HR — so we have several.
It’s important for faculty to be back. I’ve been talking to faculty senate and staff senate about the pace at which we would move on some of these. We would probably do some right away and then hold off on a few.
IL: Any final last words?
NB: I just can’t wait for my students to be back. It is already picking up — I’ve met with RAs who are on campus and that’s kind of exciting.
I guess the only other thing is we’re excited. Oct. 4 will be my inauguration. I hope that it’s an opportunity for people who have not been back on campus for a while. That’s one thing Olivia to me — I want people to come and see how beautiful the campus is and even the ones that come if they come for some sporting event and leave, they don’t see how much it’s grown. I’m actually really proud of our campus for our urban university at the heart of it all, it’s — it’s beautiful.