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University of Louisville president Neeli Bendapudi is leaving to take over as president of Penn State University, whose board voted unanimously to appoint her Thursday morning.
Her hiring follows a lengthy process by an 18-member task force to identify potential candidates for the Pennsylvania school.
Shortly before the board of trustees formally hired Bendapudi, she sent an email to U of L students and staff announcing her departure.
"The decision to embark on a new chapter in my professional journey was not an easy one," Bendapudi said. "I will miss our students, our faculty, our staff, our retirees, our alumni and our supporters, and I will miss my senior leadership team. All of you are among the best in the nation and are the heart and soul of our institution."
Listing areas of progress during her three-year tenure, Bendapudi wrote that she had "complete confidence this important work will continue and that the University of Louisville will rise to greater heights."
"This is not goodbye. Over the next days and weeks, I will work closely with the Board of Trustees to ensure a smooth transition. I will always carry Louisville and the Cardinals in my heart."
University spokesman John Karman said Bendapudi would remain at U of L through the end of the month, with the board of trustees meeting Dec. 16 to name an interim president.
Bendapudi succeeds Eric Barron, who is retiring in June, becoming the first woman and first person of color as PSU's president.
Bendapudi also has been the first woman and the first person of color to serve as U of L's president on a permanent basis.
She joined the University of Louisville in 2018 as the 18th president, according to her U of L biography.
"Bendapudi specializes in the study of consumer behavior in service contexts," it says. "Her research deals with customers’ willingness and ability to maintain long-term relationships with firms and with the brands and employees that represent them."
Bendapudi arrived at U of L during a vulnerable time for the public university, which was working to pull itself out of a period plagued by scandals that engulfed its men's basketball team and the U of L Foundation. U of L hired her as its first permanent president since its longtime and controversial former leader, James Ramsey, resigned under pressure in 2016.
Louisville was the first place Bendapudi served as a university president. She came from the University of Kansas, where she'd earned a reputation as a prolific fundraiser during her tenure as provost and executive vice chancellor.
Mending the university's strained relationships with donors was a key priority for Bendapudi, but she also made other significant moves in her time at U of L.
Within her first three months on the job, she decided to pull the 'Papa John's' moniker off of Cardinal Stadium after news broke that the company's founder, John Schnatter, used a highly offensive racial slur during a conference call.
Later on, she led the university's big decision to buy Jewish Hospital, which had been struggling financially for years, along with several other health care facilities from KentuckyOne Health. That was a transformative change for U of L's clinical operations.
Bendapudi's departure came after the U of L board of trustees had special meetings on Monday and Wednesday, which mostly involved closed session discussions of personnel matters.
After the closed session on Wednesday, the board agreed to waive the non-compete clause of athletic director Vince Tyra's contract, enabling him to take the athletic director job at Florida State University.
In her introductions at Penn State Thursday, board of trustees vice chairman David Kleppinger referred to Bendapudi as "an authentic person of the highest integrity" who is "a savvy business and financial manager."
The Penn State board gave her a five-year contract with a $950,000 annual salary, in addition to supplemental $350,000 deferred compensation payments each year and a $1.25 million bonus if she stays the entire five years. Her most recent contract with U of L was for $875,000 annually, with a $200,000 retention bonus each year.
Trustee Bill Oldsey said Bendapudi "is the whole package when it comes to remarkable university leadership," recalling that she told him the Penn State job is "the career opportunity of a lifetime."
Reacting to Bendapudi's departure, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said she had done a great job at U of L and he was "incredibly grateful for her commitment to both the university and the commonwealth."
"She’s shown leadership by example," Beshear stated. "From the successful hospital acquisition, to helping navigate the university and community through COVID-19, even supporting the state through testing and vaccinations, her efforts have been extraordinary. This appears to be an incredible opportunity that she can’t turn down and we wish her the best."
Kentucky Council for Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson stated he will miss his close friend and is "so grateful for her leadership and lasting impact on Kentucky higher education."
"She brought to us keen insights and knowledge and an unwavering commitment to high-quality learning and true equity," Thompson stated. "Penn State University is fortunate to have her, and I wish her the very best in this next chapter of her life and distinguished career."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a U of L alumnus, stated that when Bendapudi "personally informed me of her decision to leave the University of Louisville, I was excited for her but saddened to hear the news."
"When she arrived, the university faced struggles in both its academic and athletic departments," McConnell stated. "She made it her top priority to turn these struggling programs around and make the school competitive once again."
Contact Ayana Archie at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @AyanaArchie. Support strong local journalism by subscribing to The Courier Journal.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Neeli Bendapudi becomes Penn State's next president, leaving U of L