May 28, 2023

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Musings About a Missed Opportunity

Congratulations to those who served on the search and selection committees to find a new president for Penn State University.

They picked a winner in every respect. Neeli Bendapudi is a tremendously talented teacher, administrator, motivator and visionary leader. She has a genuine interest in her students and does everything she can to have their educational careers be as successful and rewarding as possible. She did a superior job here at KU as Dean of the School of Business and then Provost.

Prior to her time at KU, Ohio State University leaders used various incentives to keep her from leaving their university and coming to Lawrence and KU. Since she had warm ties to KU as a former student, the opportunities seemed excellent and she made the move. Once here, she swung into action, invigorating the faculty and students. She was an optimistic and inspirational leader and very effective in recruiting students and faculty for the entire university. Notably, she led the highly successful effort to build the new, large School of Business facility.

Over her tenure as Dean of Business, conditions and morale on Mt. Oread were not good and increasing numbers of faculty urged Bendapudi to be a candidate for the Provost’s position which was about to open up. While she was not anxious to leave her Business School leadership position, she rather reluctantly agreed to enter the race as she realized there were problems as well as opportunities for the school associated with this critical office.

She was chosen and immediately injected new enthusiasm, energy, and positive results into her new job. But there is reason to believe the working relationships between Bendapudi and then Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little were not good and frustrating for Bendapudi.

Gray-Little decided to retire and, once again, Bendapudi was urged to be a candidate, this time for the chancellorship. There was strong support for her due to her many accomplishments as Dean and Provost. But she was passed over for the job. This unexplained rejection was a major surprise among students, faculty and alumni. Dr. Doug Girod, highly respected at the KU School of Medicine and KU Hospital, was selected as the new chancellor. Girod, a head and neck surgeon, served as Executive Vice Chancellor of the KU Medical Center.

There continues to be much speculation as to how or why Bendapudi was bypassed. Was it a case of those on the search committee not as strong and positive as they should have been in making their recommendation to the Regents? Or did search committee members have a strong preference for Girod, and think he was be a better hire? Did the Regents, who had the final vote have other reasons to eliminate Bendapudi, such as not wanting two women or two women of color to be consecutive leaders of the school?

This remains a big question and unfortunately there is a fractured faculty on Mt. Oread relative to their degree of confidence in the leadership of Girod.

Bendapudi had many job opportunities at other universities, including one or more Big 12 Conference schools, but she didn’t want to lead a school in competition with KU. She received an attractive offer from the University of Louisville and went on to compile a highly successful record in her three years in Kentucky. Now, she is headed to Penn State with its 98,000 students and its leadership position in the State of Pennsylvania.

The Bendapudi story is not unique at KU. Years ago, a former distinguished member of the KU faculty accepted a prestigious position at another university and later visited this writer in Lawrence. He said he had a genuine and deep appreciation, respect and almost love for the people of Lawrence and the University, but, “I wanted to spread my wings and see how high I could fly. I couldn’t do that at KU.”

The University and Kansas cannot afford to lose good people, great teachers and motivators to other states. There have been too many cases of those on search and selections committees doing a poor, sloppy and careless job. Too many Regents do not realize the importance of seeking the best and paying them accordingly. This sloppy procedure did take place not long ago at KU in the selection of an individual for a high-profile position.

Many of Bendapudi’s friends had hoped that when Dr. Girod decides to step aside and pursue other goals, she might come back to Lawrence and KU. However, now that she is about to assume her new position at Penn State, it’s highly unlikely she will return to Kansas.

Being a college/university president/chancellor is a tough job, maybe even more so today than in past years. It’s also a terribly important job, no matter in what state, as the leadership and vision by an outstanding chancellor can play a huge role in the development and enrichment of a state.

Bendapudi is a lost treasure for KU and Kansas and hopefully Chancellor Girod will prove to be an inspiring and successful leader.

KU, Lawrence and Kansas deserve the best.