The Influentials, Part 3

Mukund S. Kulkarni, Ph.D. – Chancellor, Penn State Harrisburg

Not long ago, Penn State Harrisburg was educating 50 international students. Today, it’s 720. Plus, 40 percent of students pay out-of-state tuition for the privilege of enrolling. What’s the attraction?

“It’s the quality of the teachers in the classroom and the support that students get outside the classroom,” says Chancellor Dr. Mukund S. Kulkarni.

The soft-spoken Kulkarni has a passion for creating a learning environment where ideas flourish and students grow, not just academically but in character, as well.

“From the four years that we have with them, we want to send them out as good citizens,” he says.

Kulkarni became chancellor in 2010 and has continued leading the remarkable transformation of the Middletown campus, a former Air Force base, from mid-century government bland to 21st-Century sophisticated. Enrollment climbs every year and is now around 5,000 full-time students. Degrees have been added, attracting students choosing from a menu of 65 nationally accredited programs – “though I really can’t tell you each one,” he says with characteristic wry wit.

Kulkarni left India in his late 20s, when he was “younger and adventurous, I guess.” In the U.S., he studied at the University of Kentucky. Arriving at Penn State Harrisburg in 1985 as assistant professor of finance, he didn’t foresee rising through the ranks of administration.

He regularly converses with and listens to faculty, town-hall-style, and with the campus board of advisers, a group of “solid community leaders” in business, industry and government. He enjoys strolling the campus and approaching students to chat. What do they like about the school? What do they want to see?

Lately, he hears requests for more things to do around town, and those concerns become part of his running dialog with state and local officials. As resources shrink, he will beg and borrow to assure students what they need, whether it’s building the new Student Enrichment Center that put all student services under one roof or championing a pedestrian bridge and planned upgrades at the Middletown Amtrak station.

A visibly diverse array of students fill the campus halls, and Kulkarni points out that Penn State Harrisburg is the most diverse campus in the Penn State system, “and the quality of our students is getting better every year,” he emphasizes. He has no patience for the “urban legend” that diversifying a campus diminishes the quality of the student body.

“Abilities and intellectual capacity are not based upon color or faith or gender. It is not,” he says. “I’m not saying anything new. This should be obvious.” To get that point across, “You talk about it openly. You don’t have to do anything special, except take your colored glasses away.”

In his rare downtime, he enjoys reading whodunits, and he hopes to write his own someday.

Kulkarni hopes he has brought accessibility, approachability and transparency to his office. If there’s a secret to deftly guiding a campus through growth, perhaps it’s working with others to make ideas happen.

“You just have to have that fire in the belly,” he believes.