CRAWFORD | In first U of L crisis, Bendapudi delivers
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was a pretty obvious call, and one that most saw coming after news broke earlier this week that Papa John’s founder John Schnatter had used a racial slur on a company conference call several months ago.
But at the University of Louisville, the right call has at times been an elusive concept in the past four years.
For new U of L president Neeli Bendapudi, it wasn't. On a day generally considered bad luck -- Friday the 13th -- just Bendapudi's 60th on the job at U of L, the school realized (if it didn't already know), it is fortunate to have found her.
She removed the moniker “Papa John’s” from the school’s football stadium, as well as removing Schnatter’s name from U of L’s Center for Free Enterprise at its College of Business, effective immediately, and will let the pepperoni fall where it may.
Questions remain. Legalities will have to be discussed. Nobody at Bendapudi’s announcement on Friday was quite sure whether she had the right to tear up a contract with 22 years remaining. Nobody was quite sure what it meant for the financial arrangements in place with the university, athletic department or school of business.
She did it anyway, she said, because by doing it, “we renew our community’s commitment to speaking up when it matters, doing what is right, and coming together as one team.”
Asked whether the university would pursue another naming rights deal for the stadium, she said, “Not at this time. . . . We have to talk about (the money). We’ve made the decision. . . . We understand that this comes with certain consequences and we have examined all of those, and this is our best decision to move forward.”
In other words, make the decision first, worry about the money later.
These are things of which the university community, after a long and difficult time, ought to be proud.
Moreover, Bendapudi talked to the relevant people. She spoke with university trustees. She spoke with students. She spoke with Schnatter himself. She spoke with officials at Papa John’s Pizza, including CEO Steve Ritchie. She heard from the public.
“I certainly heard from several people,” she said. “But as president of the university, it is both my prerogative, and my responsibility to make this decision. So I made this decision.”
She had already made the decision when she spoke to Schnatter. She said he was contrite, apologetic, understanding and in support of removing his name, particularly from the business school venture.
“I would like to say that I spoke to Mr. Schnatter, he was actually very much in favor of that,” she said. “He said the whole reason he had started it was to support students, and he wanted to try to bring more dialogue across differences, and he was very supportive of taking the name off.”
On three different occasions during her seven-minute discussion with the media, Bendapudi went out of her way to separate the pizza company itself from the founder whose name it bears. U of L will continue to serve Papa John’s pizza at its stadium and elsewhere on campus.
“The company understands that it’s a difficult decision,” she said. “I am very much in support of separating the company from the individual in this decision. I’ve often joked that pizza is the great equalizer in our society. No matter who you are, everybody gets pizza. Please remember, there are 120,000 people worldwide, and their families and their livelihoods, associated with this. We in Louisville, of all places, ought to understand that. . . . I think they (Papa John's pizza) are actually really eager as a company to show that they are really committed to diversity, really committed to equity, really committed to inclusion. I think they are eager to figure out a way to help move things forward.”
After speaking to the media, she went to Cardinal Stadium to speak to the football players. She wanted to tell them that she understood the reaction, and that she felt a duty to them. She told them her background, that she supports them and that she wants them to feel positive about the university's actions at all times.
At U of L, we’re used to seeing crises develop out of nowhere and catch fire as quickly as you can say “national news.”
In response, Bendapudi acted decisively, quickly, inclusively and with strength, reiterating the institution's position clearly in the process.
In her first real experience of this kind of crisis at the troubled institution, she delivered.
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