From India to Stouffer Place, and now Strong Hall: An interview with KU’s new provost
photo by: Nick Krug
One of the things that makes Kansas University special, according to incoming provost Neeli Bendapudi, is that the university “takes chances.”
Years ago, Bendapudi believes she was an example.
She and her husband, both natives of India — brown-skinned with foreign accents, she said — had come to the United States to pursue doctoral degrees at KU. After living in a mostly furnished apartment at Stouffer Place that at the time seemed practically palatial, they were chosen by then-Chancellor Gene Budig to be the university host couple.
A competitive position because it came with free housing and a stipend, students serving as the host couple lived in the University Guest House by the chancellor’s residence and helped welcome the distinguished university visitors who stayed there.
In that role, the Bendapudis — her husband, Venkat Bendapudi, is now a senior lecturer in KU’s School of Business — met and welcomed to KU people such as musicians, a CIA director, a movie crew and an ambassador to Korea, she said.
“We got to learn about every aspect of KU,” Bendapudi said.
From sports to art, she said, they shared the story of the university.
photo by: Nick Krug
Bendapudi, who has been KU’s School of Business dean the past five years, formally begins her job as provost and executive vice chancellor on July 1.
One of her key charges in the new role — considered the university’s chief academic officer, and second-in-command to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little for the Lawrence campus — will hearken to what she did at the University Guest House and, more recently, in raising private dollars to build KU’s $70.5 million new school of business building, Capitol Federal Hall.
That’s telling KU’s “academic story.”
“We do some amazing things at KU, and I’m not talking about the marketing and the billboards,” Bendapudi said. “The ability to tell a young person why they should come to KU, the ability to tell somebody why they should go to grad school, the ability to say, ‘Look at KU, what a gem.'”
Bendapudi said that was one of the top three priorities the chancellor has set for her as provost.
Student retention may be the most important, Bendapudi said.
It’s a problem for all public universities, she said, but certainly for KU and especially among certain groups of students.
She said taking measures to help ensure students progress toward degrees is the right thing to do for students, the university and society.
“We’re making an investment in you, we want you to be here, we want you to be successful, we want you to graduate, so that’s going to be a priority,” she said. “It’s tough to shift the needle, but I want to put it front and center.”
Bendapudi’s other priority is faculty and staff development, she said.
She said faculty and staff truly care about students, and she wants to do what she can to help them succeed.
“It’s a very tough economic environment, and people are doing so much already,” she said. “In an era of limited resources still we have to find a way to continue to invest in our people. If we do, then we’re positioned for success. If we don’t, we’re going to fall behind. And keeping up is always easier than catching up.”
Bendapudi, 52, was born and raised on the coast of South India, in the city of Vizag, state of Andhra Pradesh. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees there before coming to KU — her first time in the United States — to complete her doctorate.
Bendapudi said she was recruited by a number of American universities but that she had a special tie to KU.
Her father was a Jayhawk.
When she was a small child, he left the family — Bendapudi, her mother and two sisters — home in India for three years to complete his doctorate at KU.
When he returned to India, her father taught English at a university there and always remembered the hospitality he was shown in Kansas, including being invited to people’s homes for holidays and breaks because he was too far away to travel home to India.
After completing her doctorate in 1994, Bendapudi was an assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M and a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. She has also consulted for companies including Procter and Gamble, Deloitte and Touche and Cessna.
Her academic research focuses on how customers evaluate which service providers and organizations best meet their needs and when they merit long-term relationships.
Bendapudi marvels that, when she walked into a room full of administrators and faculty to interview for dean of KU’s business school, she not only encountered her own former professors but also at least two who taught and remembered her father and showed up to support her.
KU’s “human connection” is another thing Bendapudi said makes the university unique.
Academia is full of very smart people, Bendapudi said. But some places the people with the highest IQs aren’t the nicest, and other places where people are nice may not be as intellectually challenging.
“To have that perfect intersection of smart and nice has always, to me, signified KU,” she said. “There’s just a goodness and decency about them. They’re incredibly smart and incredibly nice.”
Bendapudi said she’ll apply her business background to her leadership approach in the provost role.
She said she plans to seek and rely heavily on input from deans and vice provosts — her immediate “constituents” — as well as faculty, staff and students.
“I know for a fact that I’m not an expert in everything, so you listen to the experts,” she said. “As a leader of a very complex organization, the best thing you can do is bring the team together.”
At KU the provost and chancellor have the final say on University and Faculty Senate legislation, such as changes to the Faculty Senate Rules and Regulations.
Bendapudi said she is committed to transparency, whenever possible, in university matters and called shared governance “incredibly important,” citing her record bringing groups together to advise decisions in the business school as a track record of including people’s voices.
“Shared governance has to be lived; you cannot just say we believe in shared governance,” she said. “I call it the living brand; it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. So the experience trumps the ad, is something I like to say.”
Bendapudi said she considers herself a “temporary custodian of a great institution,” with a goal of leaving it better than she found it.
“KU has done everything for us,” she said. “I love this place.”