Home » LANE ONE-ON-ONE: UofL President Neeli Bendapudi

LANE ONE-ON-ONE: UofL President Neeli Bendapudi

New leader says transparency creates trust to fulfill its mission, and that in turn creates success for Louisville

By Mark Green

Neeli Bendapudi became the 18th president of the University of Louisville in May 2018.

Mark Green: UofL was the first city-owned university in the nation and although it’s been part of the state system nearly 50 years, there remains a special town-gown relationship. City leaders say UofL’s success is key to Louisville success. What is the current status of town-gown relations and how do you see the university’s role as an economic engine?

Neeli Bendapudi: I love the legacy of this university because it shows that it’s deeply rooted in the life of the community. People who live in Louisville, whether they went to the university or not, have a deep love for the university and a deep understanding that as goes UofL to some extent so goes Louisville. When you talk about town-gown relationships, these are often contentious because the two sides don’t completely understand what they get from one another. We’re at a very good point in time where the university and the city have a deep appreciation of how intricately intertwined we are. We are symbiotic; we need to help each other.

We have developed a strong relationship with the mayor, the Metro Council, the business and civic community in Louisville. It’s a strong relationship and getting stronger. The university is trying to be more mindful and purposeful about the way in which we impact the city. I often talk about how we at the university should have ripple effects. Our first impact should be on Louisville, then the commonwealth, then the country, and then the world. We have global aspirations, but we understand that our difference has to begin with the local.

MG: UofL is in a unique position to promote and encourage diversity. Why is the university’s role as an engine for social change important?

NB: In terms of social impact, universities have a very unique place in both reflecting the trends of the society and modeling changes that then go out into society. So we don’t just reflect society, we get to shape society as well. Because of the discussions we have in the classroom and the interactions students have with one another, we have an impact on society when they give back and enter the work force.

Diversity is one place where the UofL has always done well – and I can brag on it because I had nothing to do with it. For years this university has been viewed as very welcoming to a diverse student body and faculty and staff community.

Shaun Harper, executive director at the USC Race and Equity Center, co-authored a study (“Black Students at Public Colleges and Universities”) citing the University of Louisville in a tie with two others as the best place for an African-American student in the country. This just came out a few months ago. Similarly, a couple of magazines that follow how we’re doing in LGBTQ awareness and openness also rated us as No. 1. This university has a long tradition of being very diverse and being very welcoming. Our department of Pan-African Studies was one of the pioneers in 1973, maybe five years after the very first such department started in the country.

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To recognize this diversity that UofL has, after I became president we became signatories to the CEO Act!On Forum. If you go to ceoaction.com you’ll find that PwC, one of the big accounting firms, decided diversity is so important to social and economic development that the CEOs of businesses need to take the lead in diversity; we shouldn’t just wait for other institutions to set policy. At ceoaction.com you’ll see all kinds of businesses represented, pretty much every Fortune 500 company, but also universities are signing on. On behalf of UofL, what this implies to me is that we can look at attracting many businesses.

For example, when you talk about GE FirstBuild (a maker/creation space partnership between UofL’s Speed School of Engineering and GE Appliances), or any institution today, there’s a deep understanding that if we have multiple points of view, different perspectives, different life experiences at the table when we are making decisions, we are all better off for it. So UofL does a great deal to enhance the diversity of Louisville and to project that image that if you are based internationally and want to come here or have a new idea you want to test, we are the place where we welcome all different perspectives.

MG: At the highest, most general level, what are your goals for the university?

NB: The No. 1 goal is to make UofL a great place to learn. Often, when we forget our primary purpose that’s when we get into trouble. Our main purpose is to create a great place for everybody to learn – not just students. To have dedication to learning and apply those insights to solve the big problems of our day.

To do that, I’ve got to make sure we’re a great place to work for our faculty and staff. A great place to work does not imply just job satisfaction; I want to talk about it as ‘engaged’ employees, people who so believe in the mission of the university, our vision and where we are trying to go, that they’re willing to go the extra mile, to bring their whole selves to work.

And the second broad goal: We’re not going to that first one unless everybody sees us as a great place to invest. I’m thankful to The Lane Report that one of the things you are doing is telling our story. This gives an opportunity to residents of the commonwealth, to the taxpayers, to employers, donors, alumni, all, to say, ‘Why does it makes sense to support the university?’ I see this as a virtuous cycle and each feeds off the other.

The investments we get enable us to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff. The more we are able to create, recruit and retain the best faculty and staff, the better the learning experience for our students. The better the learning experience for our students, the more likely people are to invest in us.

These are the three big goals. We will achieve those three by really celebrating diversity, fostering equity and striving for inclusion. I created what I call Cardinal Principles. This is a values mnemonic that spells out CARDINAL to make it easy for people to remember. But one of the things that I emphasize there is R is for respect.

Let us be a university that offers:

• Community of Care. Care for self, care for one another as the Cardinals family, and care for the community beyond as the human family. We are a community – not just a collection of individuals. We are a community – not just buildings connected by an HVAC system.

• Accountability to the team. We keep our promises. We own mistakes. We are accountable to the team.

• Respect, irrespective of position. We respect each other’s humanity and dignity, no matter what our positions in the organization are. We also respect our right to differing and conflicting positions on issues. To quote, “We will be a place that prepares students for ideas, not protects students from ideas.”

• Diversity and Inclusion. We celebrate diversity of thought, of life experiences, of perspectives. We know as our state motto states, United We Stand. We want everyone, in the richness of all of their many unique and intersecting identities to feel included in the Cardinal fold.

• Integrity and Transparency. We will be true to our mission of an urban research university to create, disseminate and apply knowledge. Integrity is our collective commitment to make decisions with the best interests of our university in mind and to share the decision-making rationale and the outcomes transparently.

• Noble Purpose. Each of us will identify for ourselves the way in which we make a difference. We know we must solve the problems of access and affordability to give everyone the opportunity to find and pursue their own noble purpose.

• Agility. We will recognize that things change and when they do, we must change things. We know that when adaptation in an organization does not keep pace with adaptation in the environment, the organization will not survive.

• Leadership. We recognize that management is a position but leadership is an activity. We will all behave as owners of the University of Louisville because we are. “We are UofL” is not just a hashtag or a slogan. It is our declaration of leadership and ownership.

And regardless of your position, we treat one another with respect. We may disagree on some idea or some thoughts, but we still need to treat each other with respect. This is a big principle because when we talk about diversity, people seem to think diversity and freedom of speech are at odds of our academic freedom, and I don’t believe that at all.

I like to quote the saying: “We’re not trying to protect students from ideas. We’re trying to prepare students for ideas.” We want them to learn and understand and figure out how to debate and how to propose alternative solutions.

MG: You were given a significant mandate for change at the university, which, as you said, is a complex system of students, faculty, staff and infrastructure. How do you approach this task? What comes first and what are the crucial elements to bringing change to a large organization?

NB: The first thing is to earn people’s trust. The biggest challenge is to get people to fully accept the leader as having the institution’s best interest at heart. And the next thing is building a strong team because no one person, no matter who they are, can be superman or superwoman. It’s just not possible.

MG: UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering has been growing in recent years, which is important to Kentucky’s plans to become a world center for advanced manufacturing. What is in the works at the Speed School?

NB: The Speed School is such a gem for us. We have to keep the pipeline strong. If the state wants to be a manufacturing magnet or if we are to be the ‘makers’ (of products), it’s important that we have a very strong Speed School.

I would like to see more growth for the Speed School; we’ve had so many graduates and I want them to keep in mind that the demand for engineers is growing. But we have outgrown the space. We need more lab space. We need the ability to train the next generation more. We have a wonderful new dean, Emmanuel Collins, and the alumni are very loyal to the Speed School. So how do we keep that momentum going? We’re making big strides in bringing in women and underrepresented students into the engineering pipeline. But overall, I would like to see it continue to grow.

MG: How long does it take the university to create a new degree program or a skills certificate program after determining there’s a need for it?

NB: If all goes well, it takes about eight months or so to present a new degree program to our faculty for input and approval, share it externally to ensure it meets accreditation requirements, gain the support of our board of trustees, then have it approved by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. As we are a public institution, the state has an interest in making sure that different universities are playing on their selective strengths and that we’re not unnecessarily duplicating every degree everywhere. Within a broad degree, the emphasis can be very different and there may be a need to distinguish the offerings.

Offering a degree is usually a longer-term proposition, whereas trying to get students to learn specific skill sets for a certificate, we have much more flexibility moving quickly on that. These are proof-of-concept in some way; we’ve done some study, we hear there is demand, but we can be pretty nimble about starting up these programs. And then shifting everything as the marketplace needs.

MG: What degrees or specialty programs does UofL offer that other universities do not?

NB: It’s less about degrees that others do not offer; often it’s a question of emphasis. For example, as a university we really want to become the place for optimal aging. Republic Bank and the Trager Family recently endowed for us the Trager Family Institute for Optimal Aging (formerly the Institute for Sustainable Health and Optimal Aging). So optimal aging can be a theme no matter what you’re studying: art and art therapy, or philosophy, or engineering, or nursing. Our students would be exposed to the big demographic changes we’re seeing in terms of fewer younger people and a greater percentage of the older population and what that means. How do we reorganize the nature of work? That might be an emphasis that we look at.

We have a franchise certificate now in the business school because look at how much of our economy in the commonwealth, and certainly Louisville, is based on franchising a business model.

Other things of interest include work that’s being done in spinal cord research at the university. Recently we had Medtronic here and faculty from around the country came to see what Dr. Susi Harkema is doing in her research. We call it Victory Over Paralysis, teaching people who are completely paralyzed to gain mobility and to be able to walk.

Those are examples of cutting-edge areas where multiple schools might have a program but each university says, ‘We have a special niche and if you come here you’ll have an opportunity to get more hands-on work in this area.’

MG: UofL has grown its research significantly the past several decades. What are UofL’s current focus areas and what is the strategy moving forward?

NB: We are going through a strategic planning process right now. Being situated in a metropolitan area, University of Louisville research has two distinguishing features. One is, you will see that we tackle a lot of the big problems that impact a metropolitan setting because that’s our living lab, if you will.

The second thing is our research tends to be much more clinical or applied in nature because we want to be able to quickly take what we learn and apply it. For example, in our Kent School of Social Work we’re doing a lot to address: How do we ease the burden on communities? How do we provide more mental health counselors? It doesn’t matter which area we’re in, we tend to tackle big problems that impact cities, and our research tends to be very much focused on application as opposed to just basic sciences. It does not mean that basic sciences are not important; we rely on it.

As for specific areas we will be emphasizing, you brought up the school of engineering, and there is what’s happening in the health sciences. We are going through a strategic planning process right now, and we have a whole group looking what areas we ought to be emphasizing. Once we get the areas from the work group, we want to vet it with our board of trustees and then talk about staking that ground, areas we are particularly suited to do well.

MG: Related to research, does technology licensed from UofL research generate much income?

NB: It does generate some. But across universities, technology commercialization is not so much about (licensing income). What tends to happen is spinoffs. We are not unique. They’re taking the culture of innovation, getting more people involved. You hear about Talaris Therapeutics; its whole technology (which hopes to prevent the need for immunosuppressing drugs following a kidney transplant) just got $100 million funding. But then look at places like our Envirome Institute that Aruni Bhatnagar runs. Just like we study the genome project, the Envirome (looks for human-environment interrelationships). Or the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research. All of these are spurring innovation. So across the board, universities of technology commercialization don’t really make a lot of money in and of themselves; that’s not quite consistent with our model. What we often see is if we make it easier for our faculty, staff and students to interact with industry and to pursue those ideas, a lot of the giving comes back from grateful citizens of the University of Louisville.

MG: You mention strategic planning. What can you tell us about the university’s current strategic planning process? How long will that take and what will happen there?

NB: My belief in strategic planning is, it needs to yield a document that’s a living document, something that you constantly reference – something that acts as a guidepost, a North Star to see how we’re doing, something that’s flexible and that holds us accountable. What we’ve decided is that in lieu of five-, 10-, 20-year plans we would do two three-year plans. One will be 2019 to 2022, the next one would be 2022 to 2025. I did that on purpose so that we would hold ourselves more accountable.

The process began with my executive team and the university’s senior leadership – including faculty, staff and student governance leaders – drafting top-level strategic goals for the university. We ended up with three bold goals around making UofL a great place to learn, work and in which to invest. The workgroups then went to work building out specific strategies to accomplish the goal and particular action steps that will be required to complete the strategy. Currently, the planning groups are working on targets and measures that we can use to assess our progress on the goals once the plan is released publicly. In June, we will be revising the final language and will share the final draft with our internal and external stakeholders for any final feedback. Once we have a finished plan, we will create an implementation committee that will work throughout the next three years to ensure we are held accountable to doing the work we commit to in the strategic plan.

I decided we would have three work groups that would work in parallel, in consultation with the senior leadership team and the board of trustees. We have 30 spots on each committee. We sent out an email soliciting nominations, and in less than a week we received over 1,400 unique names. That shows how eager the university community is to engage. I find it very gratifying that so many people would want to give their time for something that’s not compensated, just because they care about the direction of our university.

MG: Are there any construction plans currently for the university?

NB: Please stay tuned because through the strategic planning process we’re hoping to align our plans for the future with the areas for excellence, because we have to be mindful that we don’t have unlimited resources. We’re hoping to align our plans for construction with areas of growth in the university.

MG: UofL was pretty early to the use of public-private partnership agreements, such as having EdR of Memphis build student housing to meet some of your campus needs. Is the school looking to enter into further P3 relationships?

NB: We’re always open to any and all of these and that’s certainly on the table.

MG: What is the status of student housing on campus? Does it meet today’s needs or are there any changes likely?

NB: The challenge for student housing on our campus as well as anywhere is to make sure we continue to have affordable options. Students today have grown up where internet access is a utility like water and electricity. Housing also takes on great importance in building community. We are emphasizing living-learning communities, trying to make sure the discussions that start in the classroom can continue outside of it, that students are actively engaged. So we are trying to update our housing, but my challenge will always be to make sure that we try to keep up with the expectations and demands of a younger generation and that we keep it affordable as well.

MG: There is special campus housing for students who work with UPS. How did UofL’s special relationship with UPS come about, and are there other potential special relationships in the community?

NB: I hope there are! The Metropolitan College is a wonderful opportunity for our students, many of whom have to work to put themselves through college, even if they have scholarships. The Metro University model has been in effect for a long time. It allows students to work a couple nights a week at UPS, and in return they can graduate debt-free. UPS offers the students bonuses because they want students to stay in college. I had so much fun going there one day when they were giving out these bonuses, for a certain GPA, a certain number of hours achieved. These students are incredible because they learn leadership skills, learn how to be disciplined, learn time management. They’re inspirations to me because they also find a way to stay actively engaged on campus.

We are very grateful to UPS for this robust relationship, and we would be eager to discuss options like that with other employers. I have had some experience in other places. It doesn’t have to be identical. It could be ways our students can gain paid internship experiences that then translate into reducing their debt and making them more marketable after graduation. For example, the Speed School has a co-op program that’s fantastic because every student is able to gain that internship experience. That’s part of their degree. In our school of business, in the MBA program, there are guaranteed internships for students. These are very important to the students and to the employers.

I’ve always said that if an employer has to hire you just based on your test scores, it’s like a coach picking an athlete based on how well they know the rules of the game rather than if they can actually play the game. I find it very important.

MG: What was your pathway into academic administration and what about it generates your passion?

NB: Early on, when I was at Ohio State University (as a marketing professor), I was very grateful to the then-dean of the business school, Dr. Joseph Alutto, who went on to be provost and president at Ohio State, because he encouraged me to take on a leadership role. I was a rookie assistant professor – we have these three tiers in academe of assistant, associate, and full professor – and he gave me the opportunity to take a lead in setting up a center to connect the university and business community so that they would say, ‘How can the research being done at Ohio State help the business community and how can the insight from business improve our instruction and research?’ That got me very interested because I had the opportunity to bring theory and practice together.

That comes from my background as a business professor, so that particularly appealed to me. I continue to grow in that area. For a while, I went on to become executive vice president of Huntington Bank, and that, too, showed me the importance of leaders and setting the tone and pursuing an agenda and making sure that you are always looking out for the best interest of the organization and its future. I was quite content playing these different roles. Then I went to the University of Kansas, which is my alma mater, when they called to see if I could come to help at a very crucial time there because the business school had undergone some turmoil. Students were unhappy with the direction; we needed to be more fiscally transparent, and I figured I had to step up to the challenge and help. I truly enjoy that role tremendously. It’s a big shift when you become an administrator in academe because it’s no longer about your individual productivity. Unlike a company, where everyone has a shared fate based on how the company is doing, often in academics, we are in our titles: It’s ‘my’ classes, how I teach ‘my’ students, it’s ‘my’ research. Being an administrator gives you a chance to see and appreciate the breadth of the university and the contributions it can make.

MG: When you arrived at University of Louisville a year ago, you gave out your cell phone number to students. Do you continue to share it and what has been the impact of doing this?

NB: I do. I usually give it out to each freshman class so that in a few years the entire campus has my number. I give it out to groups of students and encourage them give it to all of their friends. And the reason for that is two-fold.

Not every student has someone they can reach out to in an absolute emergency. I tell students it’s not for something where they can find the answer on their own, and it’s not for routine questions. It’s for when they’ve hit a brick wall, whatever that might be, or they need somebody to help. I want them to reach out to me.

The second reason I do that is, it fosters accountability among everyone who reports to me. Because if a student calls or texts me – usually they don’t call, they text – and they’re running into trouble with a unit, they will know that that student (can reach out), that I will hear about it. Everyone knows that you don’t necessarily want the boss to hear these complaints. You see what I mean?

I’m not asking everybody who reports to me to give out their number. My biggest reason for doing that is, I want every parent who sends their child here to know that to the best of my ability I am here for their young people. Not everyone has someone they can call. Under my watch, I want every student to know that they are the reason that we exist here at the university.

It’s hard to know exactly, but by now I would say I’ve given my number to 7,500 students. There are different contexts, but I’ve never received a prank call. Everybody is genuinely respectful and I have responded when students reach out to me.

MG: Transparency is something you stress so that as many people in the university community as possible know what’s going on. How is your transparency effort progressing?

NB: Transparency is creating a culture of ownership. Part of the reason for transparency is no one person can know all the answers or know exactly what should be done. Transparency allows us to say: This is the issue, this is what I’m thinking about; what do you think? You really invite people in to add their voices to the discussion. Secondly, when you’re transparent, even if people don’t agree with one’s decision they understand the criteria from which those decisions were made. They understand and they’re willing to cut you so much slack because they understand what is behind that decision.


One caution I would give as a marketing professor is, it’s not just what you say. People quickly can see through if it’s just idle talk and it’s not action. My husband, Venkat, and I have written articles about it, published in the Harvard Business Review. We called it “Creating The Living Brand” (bit.ly/2Vljy7q). Talk is cheap and really doesn’t matter; what matters is are you following that by your actions. In today’s world, people quickly know if it’s just words and you’re not following up. It’s our job to work at it every day. We say, ‘Let’s be transparent’ because we need to win back trust.

MG: At the University of Kansas you were the dean of the college of business. How has being head of a college of business impacted your priorities now as president at UofL?

NB: I had two roles at the University of Kansas. One was as the dean of business and then as executive vice chancellor and provost. As dean, in addition to being dean of the business school I also sat on public and private company boards, which I find incredibly important because this has allowed me to see how businesses react in a world of competition, that you cannot be complacent. It taught me how they have to have a single-minded focus and obsession with the customers they serve. We have to ask ourselves, what is our core purpose and how are we delivering on it?

In higher education today we need a business sense because if we are not able to bring the acumen and financial savvy to the decisions we make, it will actually undermine our goals. This includes making sure we create opportunities for first-generation college students. Students with less income and wealth are high priorities for me.

If we don’t set ourselves up to have resources to support those efforts, we will not be successful. A diverse faculty body is something that is increasingly important. With so many universities competing for a small pool of faculty, if we don’t have the resources not just to attract them but then to retain them here, we will not be successful.

MG: The university has a major medical school and a hospital and large physicians’ group. The hospital was at one point entering into a partnership with KentuckyOne Health and CHI, but then that came apart. What is the status of the health care operations at the university?

NB: The university’s health care operations are strong. In January, we hired a world-class CEO for our hospital. He is an innovative, proven hospital executive and has already turned around the finances of our once-failing hospital. The entire health sciences campus community is working to cut costs and increase our financial sustainability through a variety of cost-cutting efforts led by our dean of medicine, CFO, and the leadership of the UofL physicians group. Finally, we are engaged in conversations to potentially acquire the KentuckyOne Health assets in Louisville. We are still evaluating this opportunity, but we are excited at the potential of strengthening the university’s medical mission and extending our role in the community as a provider of choice for health care delivery.

MG: Does the university have its own health care plan for employees, staff or students because of the medical school and facilities?

NB: We have a self-insured health plan that is administered by a third party, Anthem. By being self-insured, we take on our own risk rather than having to pay an insurance provider to take on that risk.  This enables us to offer an outstanding health plan while saving our faculty and staff a substantial of money. This has proven to be very effective for our employees and very cost-effective for the university.

MG: What is UofL’s new, long-term partnership with IBM and the IBM Skills Academy?

NB: We’re very excited because the eight subject areas that are part of this partnership have the potential to be hugely impactful for everybody in the commonwealth. The business model of this IBM Skills Academy is helping us by providing us with the tools, the technology and the people so that our faculty can be working side by side with subject-area experts at IBM. Our goal starting this fall is to offer courses to our students. There are three goals of the partnership.

One is, we want to reach our students and faculty and staff inside the university. How great would it be if we could guarantee that whether you major in music or computer science, you will leave knowing something about this emerging world? There are metropolitan areas and cities and states that are the most vulnerable to (job losses due to) automation and to artificial intelligence technology, and we rank high up there. Also nationally, the more people we have who are capable of delivering on these skills, the more attractive we will be to businesses that are already here to grow or others to come here.

The second is to work with the workforces who are already here in Louisville. Whether it’s Humana or Kindred or PNC, no matter who they are, all of them are desperately looking for people with expertise in AI, cybersecurity, the cloud, etc. We’re just relying on trying to steal people away from each other or trying to attract people from the coasts to come here.

Regarding these people who are already employed, why not offer a way for all of them to be able to learn (the new in-demand skills) right here in Louisville? It could be for college credit – or what we offer is not just college credit but IBM certification –  the badging, micro-credentialing. A certificate from IBM doesn’t mean that they can only work on IBM products. It’s a level of expertise that says this person understands cybersecurity and can help you set up A, B, C.

Third, we want to be a place of study. We have a great school of education. We have psychometrics and the arts and sciences. We want them to say, ‘What is the best way to teach these subjects, in every school district in the commonwealth, to students K-12, to other professors?’

We’re very excited about it and we’re hopeful.

MG: Trends for university budgets include less public funding, higher tuitions, more student borrowing. Is UofL’s funding model changing at all?

NB: We’re trying to see if there’s some way to acknowledge the fact that our faculty and staff have gone without raises; we’d like some modest raises for our people if it’s possible. We’re also trying to keep it to just critical spending this year until we know what the priorities are that come out of the strategic planning process.

MG: What is the current state of philanthropy for UofL?

NB: Very good. We’re happy that people are coming back. We’re significantly up this fiscal year compared to last year at the same time. We’ve appointed Brad Shafer as our permanent vice president for advancement. We are very enthused about where we are.

MG: A Wall Street Journal study just said UofL’s athletics program is the third most valuable in the nation. You, athletics director Vince Tyra, basketball coach Chris Mack and football coach Scott Satterfield are all new in your positions. What’s the current state of U of L athletics and your relationship with the athletic director?

NB: It’s very positive. I feel very good about the people we have. We, have a team that is dedicated to winning with integrity, to a true commitment to our students, and that includes our student athletes. I am very enthusiastic about where we are and optimistic about the future.

MG: What has been your biggest challenge as president so far?

NB: Fully absorbing everything that we do as a university, the complexities of a big athletic system. It’s just being in a new role. It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s always something more to learn. In about a month it’ll be one year since I’ve been here. It’s been a joy and an honor, and I’m learning every day.

Mark Green is executive editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]