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All right, you’ve had time to digest it now. Former University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi is gone. Yes, it was a shocker, but now it’s time to put it all in perspective. Most of us had never heard of her until the day she was announced as the school’s president in 2018. She left just as stealthily as she came. No one knew she was exiting until the morning of her departure for Penn State. Rumors started, she flew to Happy Valley, traded in Louisville red for Penn State blue, and shut down her Louisville Twitter account – all in the same morning!
I don’t care what anybody says, that was a little shady and it stings a bit. Sometimes it’s not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it. The way she rolled out wasn’t cool, but that seems to be the way things are done these days. I personally like Neeli Bendapudi, but she has to carry her water on that.
As for Louisville, it’s time to move on and I hope people don’t keep giving in to the unwarranted inferiority complex that plagues many associated with the school. Frankly, I can’t relate to it.
Admittedly, I work at the University of Louisville but I’m not a U of L product. I spent my first two undergraduate years at the United States Naval Academy and my last two at Morehouse College. Neither school is lacking in confidence. Some would say they’re downright arrogant. To be sure, former Midshipmen have pretty high opinions of themselves. As for Morehouse, there’s an old saying, “You can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much.” That individual and institutional self-worth is second nature to me.
Louisville needs some of that swag right now!
Stop worrying and wanting to be someone else and remember a lot of schools would give their right arms to be YOU, U of L! You actually have a good recent history. You were riding high and can recapture that glory if you make wise moves going forward.
The first thing to do is put this Bendapudi thing and the last few challenging years in perspective. Seriously, don’t cast her as some type of messiah who came to a crap school where no one else wanted to be and saved you. She’s a nice woman, but she wasn’t a U of L franchise player. She was a three-year rental who was around for a quick minute and gone. God bless her, but let’s not over-praise. That cool?
There is a popular but lazy narrative that former Louisville President Jim Ramsey was a dark lord overseeing a criminal empire. Athletics director Tom Jurich was a don in his own right and basketball coach Rick Pitino was one of his out-of-control gangster capos straight out of a Goodfellas casting call. Together, the three men did nothing right, were single-handedly driving U of L straight into hell, and needed to be stopped.
You need to stop telling that story, U of L. It’s an unfair demonization.
To say issues didn’t arise during the tenures of Ramsey and Jurich would be unfair. They did. But to stop there is problematic. They did a whole lot more good than bad. The real story is one that centers on testosterone-filled power plays led by then Governor Matt Bevin who had his own ideas about what the University of Louisville should be.
Bevin is the one who illegally eviscerated U of L’s entire board of trustees and replaced it with one that would do his bidding. The school was then subjected to a series of decisions led by Bevin board chair David Grissom and of all people, wait for it . . . Papa John Schnatter! That’s the crew that tossed U of L into a freefall of leadership instability from which it has yet to recover.
Two of the saviors in that myth were eventual President Neeli Bendapudi and new athletics director Vince Tyra, who ironically, didn’t seem to like one another very much. More ironically, both left U of L on the same day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the long run.
Tyra is another doozy of a story. He was hired after stopping by Interim U of L President Greg Postel’s suite during a football game in 2017. Be clear, Postel was a Bevin board stoolie and a man who had a, shall we say, troubled relationship with the truth. Tyra was a businessman and booster who had no experience in higher-ed athletics. In Tyra’s own words at his introductory press conference, he stopped by Postel’s suite for a beer – not a job interview. He left the suite as leader of one of the country’s most prosperous athletics departments. That’s not a joke. It’s a laughable, but true story.
Tyra’s incompetence showed, of course. Tom Jurich was one of, if not the best athletics director in the nation. In 2014, CBS Sports rated Louisville America's No.1 sports program. Last year under Tyra, it was ranked 74th! Remember, there are only 65 “Power Five” schools! That man heading out the door is a good thing, U of L! Now go hire a real AD!
There’s more that needs to be remembered. Some rave about President Bendapudi’s proclamation that Louisville would be America’s “premier anti-racist university” (whatever that means) under her. Her heart may have been in the right place but, unfortunately, that turned out to be more talk than action. Maybe she just didn’t have time. I don’t know.
Past President John Shumaker, who served from 1995 until 2002, did more actual work on that front long before anybody started talking about “anti-racism” or the current largely emptied-out DE&I craze. That focus was extended under, wait for it again . . . Jim Ramsey and his stellar provost, Shirley Willihnganz.
Bendapudi also claimed as she exited that U of L’s “facility transformations [have] never [been] more noticeable.” That’s not completely accurate, either. Love them or hate them, academic and athletic facilities growth under Ramsey and Jurich are unsurpassed. They are the ones who truly and wonderfully transformed the physical face of U of L’s campus.
So, c’mon, U of L - keep your head up! Don’t let people tell you Bendapudi left for Shangri-La at Penn State because you’re a scandal-riddled hell hole where nobody wants to be. Really?
Louisville isn’t the only university that has been forced to deal with scandals and skeletons. Let’s look at pristine Penn State for a quick minute. People are talking about how great a place it is now, but to play on the words of one of my favorite rappers Too Short, it wasn’t “all good just a week ago!”
You want to talk about dancers at Louisville entertaining basketball recruits? Yeah, all right – do that. But don’t forget it wasn’t that long ago that the Nittany Lions were knee-deep in nastiness of their own surrounding assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky!
EVERYBODY went down at Penn State! Legendary football coach Joe Paterno was fired in November of 2011 and was dead 74 days later. President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and athletics director Tim Curley were all terminated, tried, convicted and sentenced to jail time. You choose which situation was worse, dancers at U of L or THAT! Just keeping it real.
So don’t get down on yourself, U of L! There are worse places. In fact, you’ve been pretty damn good in a lot of ways. You’ve got 99 problems, but being a hopelessly bad school ain’t one!
Instead of pining over Bendapudi and Tyra, maybe it’s time you got some perspective and remembered people like Jim Ramsey and Tom Jurich weren’t as bad as some folk have made them out to be.
Instead of thinking work on race is dead because the school’s first president of color is gone, remember there have been revolutionary and hard-working people who have been doing real work in that area for years at U of L. Remember historic figures like Joseph MacMillan, Robert Douglas and Blaine Hudson. Show love to current warriors like Faye Jones, Cherie Dawson-Edwards and Marian Vasser. Don’t forget the faculty of U of L’s Pan-African Studies department, one of the nation’s oldest Black Studies units. They’ve all been true to that work long before Bendapudi and will continue to be now that she’s gone.
Instead of worrying about Vince Tyra’s failing athletics hires, celebrate coaches like Jurich hire Dani Busboom Kelly, who has her volleyball team in the Final Four for the first time in history. She’s GANGSTA (yes, that’s a good thing)!
So, yeah - keep your heads up, Cardinals! Ride out this storm and come out the other side better for it! You’ve been a proud school. You can be one again! Bid those who want to leave during tough times adieu and forget about ’em! Reload and keep rockin’ with those who want to stay! But don’t let ANYBODY mess with your confidence! The time is now for you to turn your swag up to freakin’ nuclear and say like Schwarzenegger, “We’ll be back”! I’m rooting for ya!
Ricky L. Jones, Ph.D. is professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville. His column appears bi-weekly in the Courier-Journal. Visit him at rickyljones.com.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Put Neeli Bendapudi's exit into perspective, Louisville | Opinion