The road ahead: Reflections from Harrisburg Chancellor Mukund Kulkarni

Dr. Mukund Kulkarni

Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor Mukund Kulkarni.

Credit: Penn State Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Outgoing Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor Mukund Kulkarni summarizes his life story as a series of happy coincidences, calling himself a “very lucky guy.” He said that starting from childhood, many people have helped him and offered guidance in many different ways, and that has altered the course of his life’s journey for the better.

He added that his string of good fortune continued when he joined Penn State Harrisburg in 1985 as a finance faculty member in the college’s School of Business Administration. He eventually became director of the school, then senior associate dean for academic affairs, and chancellor in 2010. He said he was “lucky to have found a campus with a wonderful sense of community” that “works together as family.”

Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor Mukund Kulkarni reflects on his University career

Outgoing Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor Mukund Kulkarni summarizes his life story as a series of happy coincidences, calling himself a “very lucky guy.” He said that starting from childhood, many people have helped him and offered guidance in many different ways, and that has altered the course of his life’s journey for the better.

Credit: Penn State Harrisburg

Under Kulkarni’s leadership, Penn State Harrisburg experienced substantial growth in its student population, including a record number of international students. He continued to build upon the college’s reputation for attracting high-caliber students, highly credentialed faculty, and dedicated staff. In support of the growth in enrollment, Kulkarni oversaw the successful introduction of new degree programs; the development of new and enhanced academic and student support facilities; the expansion of teaching and learning support to faculty; and the enhancement of instructional technology. He also guided the college’s role as an economic development engine in the region.

Take a look at photos of Chancellor Kulkarni over the years

Kulkarni said that he leaves the University with a sense of fulfillment and complete satisfaction. “If I had to live my life all over again, I would do exactly what I have done,” he said.

Here, Kulkarni reflects on his career at Penn State.

Q: What prompted your decision to retire?

Kulkarni: “Several factors, actually. We [he and wife Prabha] have two grandchildren now, so we are looking forward to spending more time with them. Also, I am always mindful that you need to leave when you are on top. I think that the campus is doing well and is poised to do even better. Also, I’ve been in the job for eight years. All of these factors combined, I thought, ‘it’s time to go.’ So, a little bit of personal, a little bit of professional – both were considered.”

Q: What are your post-retirement plans?

Kulkarni: “My wife and I will continue to live in the area. We will continue to look forward to spending more time with our grandchildren in Philadelphia and Baltimore. We will travel – we want to go to Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia); Europe; South America. We will go everywhere ... safari in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa.

“I plan to read and write; I haven’t been able to do that. While in college, I published three short fiction stories. Whether I still have that talent, I am doubtful. It will probably be nonfiction, but I may dabble in fiction as well.”

Q: What drew you to a career at Penn State Harrisburg?

Kulkarni: “I am a professor of finance. I was in Michigan and we got tired of the snow and cold. We wanted to move east. I applied for the position at Penn State Harrisburg although I wanted, actually, to move somewhere by the ocean, like North Carolina, southern Virginia – but I liked it here so much. The people were so nice – two years turned into 33 years.”

Q: How did you become chancellor?

Kulkarni: “Becoming chancellor was not even on my radar. I became director of the college’s School of Business Administration, and even that I did not seek. People seemed to like my demeanor and temperament. After making some changes in the school, that success brought attention to me. People started looking at me differently. Next thing I know, I found myself in this job. But it was the work that I did, the success I had in the school that was the precursor to my chancellorship.

“My tenure as chancellor would not have been as successful but for the work that Dr. Madlyn Hanes [vice president for Commonwealth Campuses and executive chancellor at Penn State] had already begun; all I had to do was to build upon it. She cleared many pathways for me ... making it easier for me to navigate the vast and complex world of Penn State.”

Q: What have you enjoyed more, teaching or administration?

Kulkarni: “I enjoy teaching more ... there is no doubt in my mind. You get kind of a high after a good class. Students are absorbing what you say and then they would come up to me and tell me that they learned something from me. That is a very good feeling. It is not that I don’t get good feelings from being chancellor – a chancellor shapes the ... entire community. The impact is wider. The impact of teaching is instant. That is the difference.”

Q: What advice would you give to the next chancellor?

Kulkarni: “As an educational institution that is growing, and we are definitely growing, you need different kinds of leadership at different times. What we need now is someone who will emphasize research and scholarship among our faculty and students. That research and scholarship created here on campus will benefit business and industry, organizations, non-profits and the surrounding community as a whole. The new chancellor [Dr. John M. Mason Jr.] has had tremendous success in this area. I am very excited about his appointment.”

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure as chancellor?

Kulkarni: “We have become one of, if not the most, diverse campuses at Penn State. Our international students have increased tenfold during my time as chancellor, coming from more than 50 countries.

That has helped drive diversity at the college. ... We also continue to have quality students with each passing year.”

Q: What part of the job will you miss the most?

Kulkarni: “I will miss the people the most. ... I will miss everybody here.

"I will also miss the graduation ceremonies and convocations, when we see students off, letting them go out into the real world, and when we welcome new students into our fold. That is memorable. Though we do it every year, it is still always new, always fresh, always exciting. I will miss that.

“I will miss the ability to influence, not just the college community, but to make a difference in the wider society at large.”

Q: What is your favorite Penn State Harrisburg memory?

Kulkarni: “There are plenty of wonderful memories, but one particular moment stands out in my mind. Many years ago, I had just become director of the School of Business Administration, and a student came to me and said that he was having many [personal] difficulties [and felt uncomfortable] within his project group. I went to the instructor of the class and others to intervene on his behalf. After that intervention, the student finished his studies and successfully graduated.

“After the graduation ceremony, his mother came up to me, tears rolling down her cheeks. She hugged me, and said, ‘you saved my son’s life.’ I had no idea. She went on to explain that before I spoke up for him, he was having thoughts of harming himself.

“A few years later, at a reunion on campus, the student approached me, thanked me, and said that he was now the CFO at a large utilities company in Florida. There are many such memories.”

Q: How do you want to be remembered at Penn State Harrisburg? What is the legacy you leave behind?

Kulkarni: “There are certain things that are really easy to see and I am not going to talk about those. I am not going to talk about the campus, the growth of students, the many faculty members of national repute that we have. These are all good things. But the one thing I hope I have created and I hope will continue even after I leave is that I changed the tone of dialogue. Bringing civility, politeness and respect when we address each other, when we talk to each other, when we write to each other. I think that is important and I hope that remains as my legacy.”

Kulkarni also called it an honor and privilege to serve. And, while poking fun at himself in the process, he expressed his feelings about what he views as good fortune.

"Having come from a country 8,000 miles away, with a different culture altogether, [having] a funny name and a weird accent, and hardly being able to [be seen] when behind the podium, the fact that I had this opportunity and was able to accomplish so much – with the help, support and encouragement from the campus and wider community – I feel very fortunate. I am thankful and grateful.”

He is also quick to spread credit for the successes of Penn State Harrisburg. “It is not me alone who did it ... everyone came together, and together, though it is a small kitchen, we were able find the perfect recipe."