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Top Lion steps down: Kulkarni didn’t expect to stay at Penn State; now he’s retiring after 33 years

By Jason Maddux

jasonmaddux@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/27/18

If life weren't so cold on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Mukund Kulkarni might not have made his way to Penn State Harrisburg in 1985.

Now, this week, the man who intended to stay at the campus only …

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Top Lion steps down: Kulkarni didn’t expect to stay at Penn State; now he’s retiring after 33 years

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If life weren't so cold on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Mukund Kulkarni might not have made his way to Penn State Harrisburg in 1985.

Now, this week, the man who intended to stay at the campus only briefly, and who never aspired to be more than a professor, will retire after 33 years, the last eight as chancellor.

“I look forward to coming to campus every day. I enjoy it. They paid me for the work that I enjoy doing anyways. You couldn't ask for anything else. If I had to live my life all over again, my professional life as well as my personal life, I wouldn’t change a thing. I'm very fortunate,” Kulkarni told the Press & Journal during an interview in his large but understated office in the Olmsted Building.

Dr. John Mason, who was vice president for research and economic development at Auburn University, has been selected as the new chancellor, starting Aug. 1. Mason received his bachelor’s degree in transportation technology from Penn State Harrisburg in 1972, one of the first years there was a graduating class from the college that then was known as the Capital Campus.

Growth

The campus has grown 20 percent during Kulkarni’s tenure, from 4,200 in 2010 to 5,100 last fall.

The growth, he said, has meant better and better students.

“Our freshman class, for example, we get almost 40 percent that is out of state. Now that doesn't mean I don't want Pennsylvania students. But it is an indicator that they are willing to pay much higher tuition and still come here, which means we are providing something worthy of the higher tuition the students pay,” he said.

There has been a concerted effort to reach out to international students. The campus had about 700 international students from 49 countries last school year.

He was an international student himself, many years ago. Kulkarni came to the United States in 1976 from India, eventually earning a doctorate at the University of Kentucky and an MBA from Marshall University in West Virginia.

The international push at Penn State Harrisburg, he said, is a reflection on today's business world.

“You will not find any major company, whether American, European, whichever ... your co-workers are from all over the world. If we can provide that here, they will have something extra when they go into the job market,” he said.

Family matters

He is retiring, he said, because his family is growing. He has two grown daughters, both who are married and have babies who are a few months old.

Gauri has a doctorate and teaches at Towson University. Manjiree has an MBA, and she’s an investment banker in Philadelphia.

“It is time for me to spend time with them,” he said.

It was his family, in a way, that led him to Penn State Harrisburg from Michigan Tech, which is located in one of the northernmost spots in the Upper Peninsula of that state. For some perspective on how far north (and how cold) that is, it's 200 miles due north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“It got so cold and snowy one day. At that time I had an almost 10-month-old child. I said (to my wife), 'You want to take her out? You have to wrap her up and this and that and whatever.' I said, ‘Let's go where it's a little bit warmer.’ ”

When he went that day to the Michigan Tech library to review job openings in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a Penn State Harrisburg post was one of the three.

“Within one week I was called for an interview. By the time my interview was done and I went back, they called me and said, ‘Hey, we want to make you an offer,’ ” he said.

“I said to my wife, ‘Hey, let’s go there for a couple of years and we will move to North Carolina, Virginia, somewhere warmer.’ ” 

Didn’t plan to stay

He started as an assistant professor of finance.

“I liked the people in the School of Business. I also made a lot of friends outside the School of Business. People is the reason I stayed here. They were bright, smart, well-educated, intellectually curious. Really, very, very friendly,” he said.

“Remember, I'm in finance. The finance field has a scarcity of PhDs. If I wanted near water in North Carolina, I could get a job. It was no problem. There’s no problem even now for those certain fields. I was recruited very heavily. One in California and one in Virginia. The reason I continued to stay here was the people that I met. I also had success in my research and my teaching. It was all positive re-enforcement every year,” he said.

He became a full professor, then director of the School of Business in 1996.

The school became professionally accredited during his 10 years at the helm.

“I wanted to go back to faculty. I really love being in the classroom and I missed it greatly. But then they asked me to be senior associate dean for academic affairs,” he said. That's the No. 2 position on the campus. He held that job for four years and then became chancellor.

“To be an administrator was not in my mind at all. I just wanted to be a faculty member. I didn't aspire to be chancellor or school director or anything. That absolutely was not on my mind. I didn't think about it. I didn’t work for it,” he said.

“I happen to be chancellor. Sometimes it just happens. You are at the right place at the right time. There are thousands of people who probably could do as well or even better than I am, who could be in the job. That brings me humility. When you are at the top position, you have to be as humble as you can be, not because you are incompetent, but because who are you going to show off your power to? That's part of you anyways. Everybody knows that,” he said.

Philosophy

So what is the leadership philosophy of someone who never aspired to be the person in charge?

“There are certain aspects that are key to the way I operate. I think a person must have very strong values. I’m a finance professor so I know how to run a budget. I can hire someone to do that at a much lesser expense than my salary. What is important is where I spend the money, how I spend the money and whether I'm responsible and what my values are,” he said.

He referenced his office as an example. He said there hasn't been a penny spent on the office in almost 20 years.

“Now I will spend it because I didn't want anyone to say, ‘Look, he's spending money on his own,’ ” he said. “That’s what I mean by values.”

He said people in power should never use their position to belittle or undermine others.

“I treated them like they were my equals. It goes a long way. If somebody’s doing something on the grounds, and I might not know the person’s name, but I stop there, thank them for their work, and the guy goes and tells his supervisor. That supervisor calls me and says, ‘Hey, thanks for stopping with him, and he’s so happy you stopped by.’ These are small things but they go a long way I think. What you do and how you do it, both are important.”

Retirement

Outside of time with family, he plans to stay busy in retirement, and will stay in the Camp Hill area.

“I love to read. I also want to write. I think I can write very well. My short stories are published in India,” he said.

He and his wife, Prabha, would like to travel all over the world, but “not the usual tourist places.” He mentioned Alaska, Thailand and Cambodia as possibilities.

He said he also likes to cook, mostly Indian or Italian.

While the campus has evolved during this tenure and the student body has grown, he said it’s individual interactions with students and their families that will stand out to him the most.

“I remember the parents of a student who had a different sexual orientation who came to me and said that the manner in which their son was treated was so nice. We could have never expected that kind of thing. And that was very fulfilling,” he said. “Occasionally parents of international students come for graduation and they are just thrilled for the education and the experience that their child received.”

He credits his “predecessor, boss and friend,” Madlyn Hanes, for his success.

“The success would not have happened, and I’m very honest when I say this, if Madlyn had not worked as much as she did. She created all the possibilities so I could just realize those possibilities. She created potential for someone to take it and run away with it.”

Hanes is now vice president for Commonwealth Campuses and executive chancellor at Penn State. She was PSU Harrisburg chancellor from 2000 to 2010.

One thing he won’t miss about being chancellor are the times he is asked to speak about his accomplishments.

“I’m shy about talking about myself. I’m really genuinely shy. I don't want to talk about myself much. The attention, I don't like. The spotlight, I don't like,” he said.