Amy Gutmann

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Straight talk from UPenn’s president on education, democracy, next year’s election—and yes, where to find the best ice-cream in Philadelphia

By Linda Arntzenius

Photography by Benoit Cortet

When former Princeton University Provost Amy Gutmann became the eighth President of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, she embarked on an ambitious plan to show the world not only what could be done to further research, teaching, and clinical care at a first-rate Ivy League institution, but what should be done. Her inaugural address launched the Penn Compact, reconfirmed last year as Penn Compact 2020. The University has been transformed. And the city of Philadelphia is all the better for it. Nothing demonstrates the power of Gutmann’s vision more vividly than the 2012 Design Champion Award-winning Penn Park, the beautiful 24-acre urban sanctuary that has taken the place of what was once an ugly asphalt parking lot. “My vision for Penn’s campus has been to elevate it as the model of the most innovative, beautiful, and sustainable urban university in our country and the world. Penn’s campus is first and foremost an enormous workshop of ideas—a living, breathing dynamo for discovery and creativity,” says Gutmann, with infectious enthusiasm.

Penn Park connects the campus to Center City Philadelphia and surrounding neighborhoods, as called for in the University’s master plan. But Gutmann’s vision goes beyond civic involvement in its academic goal to foster interconnections among Penn’s dozen schools as well as in its medical and health care system. She describes it as: “spurring urban development while propelling forward our world-class interdisciplinary teaching and research, as well as our groundbreaking clinical care.”

In the last decade, 3.5 million new square feet have been added to the campus not to mention another 1.5 million square feet of renovations; campus open space has gone up by 25 percent. As Philadelphia’s largest private employer, Penn is one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful economic engines. Gutmann rattles off the figures. “In addition to educating more than 24,000 students every year, we employ more than 34,000 faculty, staff, and health care workers, care for more than 83,000 in-patients and two million outpatient visits in our health system, conduct over $900 million in sponsored research, provide $121 million in pro bono medical care and invest a similar amount through direct spending in our local community. In 2010, our annual economic impact on the city of Philadelphia was over $10 billion and our impact on the region over $14 billion. That impact has grown dramatically over time and will continue to grow. All of the numbers are big, as is our endowment, but the positive net result—the outcome for our community, our nation and for the world—is even bigger still.”

Gutmann’s next step is to share the benefits of Penn’s research, teaching, and service to individuals and communities at home and abroad. It’s hardly surprising then that David L. Cohen, Chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees has called Gutmann “simply the best university president in the country” whose leadership has made the University “a stronger and more vibrant institution than at any time in its storied history.”

At Princeton from 1976 to 2004, the award-winning political theorist was Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics; she was awarded the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award and was founding director of its University Center for Human Values. At Penn, she has expanded her international reputation for leadership in higher education by championing increased access through Penn’s all-grant policy for undergraduate financial aid recipients.

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Increased Access

Increased access to high quality higher education, says Gutmann, is “the single greatest gateway to other opportunities in life, for oneself, one’s family, one’s society and the world. In a global society that grows more interconnected by the second, it is close to a necessity. Ever since I had the good fortune to be afforded access to high quality schooling, it’s been among my highest priorities and greatest passions to work to enable all students to have affordable access to high-quality higher education regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status.”

Penn’s undergraduate financial aid budget this year is the largest in Penn’s history—$206 million. That, says Gutmann, is a 161 percent increase from where it was a decade ago. As a result, the average net cost to aided Penn freshmen—all freshman with financial need—is nearly 14 percent less today (in constant dollars) than it was ten years ago, she says. “We aim to raise a total of $1 billion for student aid by 2020.”

Grant-Based Financial Aid

Gutmann sees financial aid based on need as a way to promote socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Penn is one of a handful of universities in the country that have substituted grants for loans for undergraduates with financial need, which means that since, unlike loans, grants never need to be repaid, students from typical families with incomes less than $40,000 paid no tuition, fees, room or board. Students from typical families with incomes less than $90,000 paid no tuition and fees. Typically ten percent of the students in Penn’s incoming class are the first in their families to attend college. “Most important of all, to my mind, is that our commitment to affordability benefits everyone, first and foremost, by maximizing creativity and innovation in education, which is the result of bringing the most talented, hardworking and diverse classes of students together in a great campus setting.”

Penn is the largest university to establish this all-grant policy for undergraduates qualifying for financial aid. Simply put, it’s string-free financial aid. While most other universities provide a mixture of grants and loans, Penn (and also Princeton) are among the small number providing “all grant” financial aid. Students are not expected to take out loans for their portion of the aid package.

A significant part of this success story stems from Penn’s strong endowment. Universities are institutions designed to last through the ages, says Gutmann: “In England, Henry VIII’s grandmother established some of the first endowed professorships and they continue to exist today. Universities take the long view and resist the short-termism that is so prevalent and destructive of socially constructive action in our society.”

A well-managed endowment provides a reliable revenue stream in perpetuity, which not only supports students and faculty but also enables universities to be anchor institutions in their communities. “When the economic going got tough in 2009, Penn not only stood by its commitment to all-grant, need-based financial aid for our students; Penn also continued to invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year in local building projects, in pro bono medical care and family services for members of our larger urban community.”

All this speaks to Gutmann’s philosophy of public education as an essential responsibility of good government. “Democracy is especially dependent on a universally-educated citizenry, all the more so when modern technology is exponentially expanding the capacity of powerful individuals around the world to harm others, especially those who have been deprived of sufficient education to effectively defend their own interests.”

Need-based financial aid together with need-blind admissions creates the formula for greatness in higher education, says Gutmann, for whom this issue has personal meaning. “Without need-blind admission, I would have never been admitted to Radcliffe (my mother supported herself and me on a secretary’s job and social security). Without need-based financial aid, I could not have afforded to go to Radcliffe, once admitted. My life is completely different today than it would have been without financial aid, which I forever will champion for others.”

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Family Values

Born in Brooklyn to Kurt and Beatrice Gutmann, the future academician describes her parents as extremely hardworking, adventurous people in happy engagement with the world, intent on making a positive impact. “Those are qualities I value most highly,” she says. Her father’s experience in fleeing Nazi Germany in 1934 as a college student who brought his entire family, including four siblings, to join him in safety—first in Bombay, India, and then in the United States after World War II, could not fail to have an impact. “My father, Kurt, was the youngest of five children in an Orthodox Jewish family living near Nuremberg when Hitler came to power. At a remarkably early age, under incredibly trying conditions, he had the wisdom, foresight and courage to act on the deeply troubling developments and decided to escape. His brave decision profoundly shaped my life and that of my family. I would not be here today had he acted differently, and I do my best to uphold his example of wise and decisive action.”

Gutmann went to Radcliffe on a scholarship in 1967 and graduated magna cum laude in 1971 before going on to earn a master’s degree in political science at the London School of Economics the following year and a doctorate in political science from Harvard in 1976.

Reportedly the highest paid female university president in the United States, Gutmann has overseen Penn’s largest fundraising campaign ever. With perhaps a nod to Philadelphia’s past as much as Penn’s future, the campaign, launched in 2007, was titled, “Making History.” It raised a record-breaking $4.3 billion from 327,000 donors, large and small, exceeding its goal by more than $800 million.

Her titles speak of multiple accomplishments. In addition to being Penn’s president, she is Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of communication in the Annenberg School for Communication, with faculty appointments in philosophy in both the School of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Education.

Besides her obvious smarts, Gutmann is bold, forthright, and decisive. Last year, after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when protestors disrupted her holiday party for students, Gutmann joined them prostrate on the ground in a symbolic gesture that recognized the hours that Brown’s corpse was left lying on a Ferguson street. Earlier this year, she inaugurated annual President’s Engagement Prizes of up to $150,000 for graduating seniors to design and implement local, national, and global engagement projects. In other words, awards that offer an opportunity to change the world.

Education and Democracy

Guttmann has published widely on the value of education and deliberation in democracy, the importance of access to higher education and health care, and the essential role of ethics in public affairs. Her sixteenth book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, co-written with Dennis Thompson and published by Princeton University Press in 2012, suggests that compromise is built into the democratic process and that its artful practice would be valuable in the current time of political polarization. Urging policymakers to read it, Judy Woodruff of PBS Newshour called it “a clear-eyed examination of the forces that bring warring political leaders together or keep them apart.”

Earlier works explored the core values of a civil democratic society: liberty, opportunity and mutual respect. Democratic Education (1987; revised 1999) tackled questions like: what should children be taught? how should citizens be educated? and the challenges and opportunities of multiculturalism. Democracy and Disagreement (1996), also co-written with Thompson, developed the theory of deliberative democracy and called for more reasoned argument in everyday politics. The book was praised by some as an effective remedy for polarized politics and criticized by others as impractical.

In 2011, Gutmann was listed among Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Shake the World. Asked her opinion on aspects of the world that might currently be in need of a good shake up, she says: “We need to make good schools, from pre-school on up, available to all. We need to make high quality health care affordable and available to all. We need to clean up our shared environment and fight global terrorism and fanaticism so that future generations can live safely and breathe freely. To do any and all of this, we need a well functioning politics and economics. All of this and more need some serious shaking up today.”

According to Gutmann, Washington, D.C. has “veered perilously far away from a system and a spirit of governing that works, opting instead for a bleak and ineffective landscape of fiscal cliffs, vitriol, and polarized intransigence…For too many years now, business is barely being done at all in D.C., and with quite dire consequences for tens of millions of people, especially the youngest and most vulnerable. With next year’s critical elections approaching, it’s more urgent than ever that we all—young people importantly included—not only speak up but also head to the ballots and cast our votes for those candidates who value working with others to move the ball forward for our common good more than they value scoring hyper-partisan style points in campaigning and not governing. Many even more disturbing features of our world need shaking up, but getting American politics unstuck would be the great start that ignites even greater change to come.”

Finding time from her busy schedule, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, she’s currently in the preliminary stages of what may result in two new books, the first on bioethics, and the second a distillation of what she has learned about leading institutions of higher education. She won’t start writing these for a while though, and given her commitments, that’s not surprising.

Besides leading Penn, Gutmann is the very active chair of President Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which has issued over a half-dozen major reports ranging from lessons to be learned from the Ebola epidemic, ethical standards for testing experimental vaccines, and steps to ensure that we undertake and enlist neuroscience research in the public interest. She has been deeply involved with each and is currently working on a report on Deliberation and Bioethics Education. She’s also chair of the Association of American Universities and founding member of the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, an advisory group to the secretary general of the United Nations.

How does she manage it all? “Nobody succeeds alone,” she says. “I have always had great teams working with me: engaged and wonderful boards, tremendously talented and collaborative executive teams, fabulous support staffs, wonderful deans, faculty and students, and throughout it all an incredibly supportive spouse and family.” Asked to share her strategy for success, she says there’s no secret: “It’s pretty darn simple: commit yourself unreservedly to everything you care about doing, focus like a laser on your highest priority goals, proactively consider the unintended consequences of your plans, inspire confidence and trust by knowing your subject matter and being honest with—and respectful towards—everyone, and always maintain a sense of humor and proportion as to what’s really important in life. I have found that a certain lightness of being—not taking yourself too seriously—is not only key to making your workplace joyful but also essential to seeing your way clear through the darkest tunnels and hardest times.”

To unwind, Gutmann reads, watches movies, goes to shows, bicycles, skis, swims, and does pilates. Currently on her nightstand are Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates’s combination of memoir, history and analysis of white supremacy and being black in America; and Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

She’s re-reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and has just enjoyed the Lin-Manuel Miranda hip-hop Broadway musical it inspired. “It’s brilliant,” says Gutmann of the show. “You should see it. I’ve read biographies of all the presidents and have enormous admiration for the great public officials of our history.”

Her sole guilty pleasure is caviar, but she doesn’t get to indulge it very often. She enjoys comfort food, especially desserts, she says. “And every summer meal has to include fresh Jersey corn.” Her forte is the dessert soufflé. But when she can’t find the time to cook, she seeks out classic French Macarons and the delights of Philadelphia’s Capogiro Gelato Artisans, which National Geographic listed among its top 10 places to eat ice cream. “And it’s only a block away from the president’s residence,” she laughs. Since moving to Philadelphia, Gutmann misses the close access to the many good friends she has in Princeton. But, with her husband Michael Doyle, a professor of law and international affairs at Columbia University, she remains connected to the town through their daughter Abigail, who teaches chemistry at Princeton University and lives here with her husband Jakub Jurek and their two young children: Konrad, 2, and infant Leah, born in August.

As for Philly, Gutmann relishes the city’s  links to the nation’s history, its broad range of arts and cultural institutions, its many restaurants. And, given her role at Penn, she has to give a shout out to The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, the oldest museum in the country. She enjoys being able to walk or bicycle to her favorite spots. But most of all, she says, “I appreciate the diversity of the people.”

Given her skill set, experience and philosophy it is impossible to resist the urge to ask Gutmann if she would ever consider running for office? Her response is hearty laughter! Clearly it’s not on this busy university president’s agenda. One can but hope.