Even for someone who lets old friendships slide (or doesn’t take on major full-time administrative posts), Gutmann’s scholarly output would be impressive. She’s published more than 100 articles and essays; edited volumes on political philosophy, practical ethics, and education; and published a dozen or so influential and highly honored books. Her most recent include Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, which pairs essays written by her and K. Anthony Appiah; Democratic Education, which examines who should have the authority to shape the way citizens in a democracy are educated; Identity in Democracy, a consideration of the “good, the bad, and the ugly of identity politics”; and Democracy and Disagreement and Why Deliberative Democracy? both co-authored with Dennis Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, in which they argue that deliberative democracy offers an approach for resolving some of America’s most trying moral disagreements—and living, on terms of mutual respect, with those that can’t be resolved.

Though her list of research interests reads like a dream lineup for a cable-news shouting match—religious freedom, equal opportunity, race and Affirmative Action, education, democracy, multiculturalism, and ethics and public affairs—Gutmann’s prose is characterized by a calm (though never dispassionate) lucidity and a patient effort to reason through the most intractable issues. In the classroom, colleagues and former students say, her greatest strength is her ability to open a dialogue with students, sharing her views but never imposing them, and drawing out the best from others.

Democratic Education devotes several chapters specifically to higher education. In considering the role of universities in society, she contrasts two views—the first is the well-known “ivory tower”; the second sees the university as a “service station” for society. Both are limited, she says.

The problem with the ivory-tower model is that it fails to engage with the issues of the world, while the service-station model, proposed in reaction to the ivory tower’s perceived irrelevance, results in a loss of bearings, stripping the university of its “core mission of preservation, communication, and creation of knowledge.” Universities do exist to serve society, she says, but they do so “by virtue of what we are and do” rather than by passively fulfilling society’s demands—for example, by turning out the required number and type of workers needed at a given time. To pursue their mission, universities need to create environments conducive to teaching and scholarship, which can include everything from protecting faculty members’ ability to express unpopular opinions to creating safe, appealing spaces for undergraduates to live, she says.

The book also addresses the thorny question of the distribution of higher education—who gets in, where, and why. “Access to higher education is the keystone of what we contribute to society,” she says, and institutions like Penn need to create more opportunities for students from all walks of life to get a university education “to better serve our mission and educate future leaders.”

It’s not surprising that access to education is a highly contentious issue—nearly everyone wants to come to Penn or places like it. “For every wonderful, highly qualified student we admit, we are, unfortunately but necessarily, rejecting some other wonderful, highly qualified student,” she says. “Our job is to put together class after class of students who are as excellent and diverse as can be, where excellence and diversity go hand in hand.”

Though Gutmann’s work has at times been drafted into the so-called Culture Wars, she is a determined conscientious objector in that verbal conflict. She deplores the polemics on both sides of the multiculturalism debate, for example, which give the impression that anyone who disagrees with the writer or finds anything to recommend in the viewpoint being attacked “must be a fool,” she says. “We should think twice before suggesting that anyone else is a fool.” Better to learn from—or at least respect —others’ views.

In an influential paper and two books, Gutmann and Harvard’s Dennis Thompson have elaborated their theory of deliberative democracy as a way to achieve consensus among a welter of competing perspectives in government and other spheres of society. Deliberation offers “a way of moving forward on hard issues,” from health care and education, to confronting AIDS, to crime and punishment, in which “all voices are heard,” she says. “If you engage the perspectives of all of the people whose lives are affected by these issues, it is possible to arrive at a consensus that is defensible,” she says. “Not unanimous, but defensible.”

The losers in such a system are those at the extremes, who don’t get their way, but, if exremists did get their way, “most people’s lives would be miserable,” says Gutmann. “This is in a democracy,” she adds. “If you’re in a dictatorship, the dictator gets his way—it’s usually a him, not always.”

Gutmann’s and Thompson’s ideas about deliberative democracy grew out of a course that they co-taught at Princeton. Their initial plan was to simply rewrite their lectures for the course, “but that proved to be not successful,” Thompson says. Eventually, they developed a working method that in many ways mimics the subject. “We spend a lot of time talking—framing the chapter, trying to see where there are points of agreement and disagreement.” Then one of them does an outline, and the other writes a draft, which they pass back and forth until they are satisfied. “We rarely sat down over a computer and tried to write sentences or paragraphs together,” he notes. “That just doesn’t work.”

While some disputes linger as long as the final draft, he says, “Obviously, we would not have been able to write as much together as we have if we didn’t share basic values. So the process of writing about deliberative democracy itself was deliberative—at least at its best—and argumentative at other times.”

Thompson has known Gutmann since she came to Princeton; in fact, while on the faculty there, he was chair of the search committee that hired her, and chair of the department when she was promoted to tenure. He draws a close connection between Gutmann as teacher and scholar and as administrator.

“She is focused, incisive, gets everything done quickly and on time and without any sacrifice in quality,” he says. But her ability to move “quickly, decisively, and efficiently” is combined with an instinct for pausing “when there is a genuine problem that requires further thought.”

In the classroom, “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’ve never seen anybody better,” he says. Though a gifted lecturer, Gutmann’s real strength is in the “extraordinary” way she interacts with students, an approach that carries over to her other responsibilities. “She has always seen herself as a teacher, and I think actually even in things like fundraising and chairing meetings of deans, she’s still in a teaching mode,” Thompson notes. “And for Amy teaching is not just imparting information to other people but interacting—in a deliberative way, actually. Sort of bringing out the best in her students and learning herself as she goes along,” As president, he adds, “I see her as the best kind of teacher, and I think the alumni will appreciate that in her, and it will make her, no doubt, a success, among her other qualities.”

Gutmann was drawn to academic administration in part by the opportunity to “put into practice some things that I have taught and written about,” as well as to make a difference for many people rather than just a few. Having seen what “I can do in leading a smaller institution at the provostial level,” when the opportunity of the Penn presidency surfaced, “it was obvious it would be a mistake not to rise to the challenge,” she says.

Before becoming Princeton’s provost in 2001, Gutmann had earlier served as dean of the faculty in 1995-97 and academic advisor to the president in 1997-98. But she was most closely identified with the University Center for Human Values, which she took the lead in developing and directed through much of its first decade, building a substantial endowment and establishing it as a leading forum for discussion of ethical issues and human values. “This represents what I believe leadership should do—make a difference in the world and engage all different perspectives,” she says.

The idea behind the center was to bring the study of ethics to students, faculty, and the public in a forum that could cut across all fields of specialization in recognition of the fact that “there are ethical issues everywhere,” she says. The center sponsors visiting fellowships; prizes for graduate students and undergraduate theses; programs in ethics and public affairs, political philosophy, and law and public affairs; and lecture series. As an indication of how widely the center casts its intellectual net, speakers have included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the novelist J.M. Coetzee, the poet Robert Pinsky, and primatologist Frans de Waal.

Leading and fundraising for the center also taught her the importance of “building a strong base—and never ceasing to build,” Gutmann says. What many in higher education fail to realize—though not people at Penn, she is quick to add—is how dynamic and highly competitive their world has become. The complacent fall behind, “and I have represented the opposite of complacency.” Rather, “I see myself as continually looking for the next opportunity,” she says, citing a favorite Franklin aphorism to the effect that those who love life should not squander time, for time is the stuff that life is made of.

Gutmann’s successor as director of the center, Dr. Stephen Macedo, was also a graduate student at Princeton in the days before it was founded. The center has made a “huge difference” to Princeton’s campus, and has been in large part responsible for creating “an amazing culture of public argument on the largest ethical and moral questions,” he says. “It has enlivened the university, enriched its intellectual resources, and made it a much more exciting place to be.”

Gutmann was Macedo’s dissertation advisor, and he was also a graduate teaching assistant for two lecture courses she taught, on ethical issues in public life and the history of political thought. “They were sort of legendary courses,” he recalls, “ones that students years after leaving the university referred back to as pivotal moments in their education.”

The courses were marked by Gutmann’s “extraordinary clear-mindedness” in bringing large ethical questions from the whole history of philosophy to bear on today’s moral problems in public life and presenting a balanced, multi-sided account of the alternatives—while still advancing her own view “in an open-minded way” and inviting criticism. “I think students appreciate that as well.”

As a dissertation advisor, Macedo credits Gutmann with both helping him think through his chosen topic and framing it appropriately “in order to actually get it done,” he says. “The thing about Amy that makes her an excellent administrator as well as a wonderful academic is that she sees how to get things finished in a reasonable amount of time and she is able to define projects that are doable. She has a wonderful practical sense of the limitations of time as well as great creativity and intellectual depth and an incredible sense of relevance.”

Though he says he was unaware of the opportunity at Penn, Macedo was not surprised that Gutmann would be chosen as president somewhere. Indeed, she was reportedly among the finalists for the presidency of Harvard University in 2001. It was after former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers was named to that post that Gutmann was quoted in the Princeton student newspaper as saying that she did not want to be a university president—a statement she amended last winter to say that what she really wanted was “to be Penn’s president.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

Learning & Leading
By John Prendergast
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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September|October Contents
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Gutmann in Print

From Identity in Democracy

When I use the term democracy, it signifies a political commitment to the civic equality of individuals. A democracy also can and ideally should be a deliberative democracy, offering opportunities for its citizens to deliberate about the content of democratic justice and to defend their best understanding of justice at any given time.

A just democracy therefore respects the ethical agency of individuals, and since individuals are the ultimate source of ethical value, respect for their ethical agency is a basic good. Ethical agency includes two capacities: the capacity to live one’s own life as one sees fit consistent with respecting equal freedom for others, and the capacity to contribute to the justice of one’s society and one’s world. All democratic theories that take ethical agency seriously also honor three principles in some form. One is civic equality—the obligation of democracies to treat all individuals as equal agents in democratic politics and support the conditions that are necessary for their equal treatment as citizens. A second principle is equal freedom—the obligation of democratic government to respect the liberty of all individuals to live their own lives as they see fit consistent with the equal liberty of others. A third principle is basic opportunity—the capacity of individuals to live a decent life with a fair chance to choose among their preferred ways of life.


From Color Conscious

The claim on the part of morally motivated people that color blindness is the uniquely correct response to racial injustice is understandable, for principles of justice are typically conceived with the model of an ideal society in mind. Furthermore, most of us first learn about fairness in family contexts where color consciousness would be out of place, or taught for pernicious purposes. When we are taught to take principles of justice seriously, whether as children or as students and scholars, we learn those principles that have been developed for an ideal society. This does not constitute a wholesale critique either of our upbringing or of our philosophical traditions, but it does signal a serious, neglected limitation of our moral education of which we should be aware. It would be a blatant contradiction for a political philosophy to posit an ideal society that is beset by a legacy of racial injustice. The principles that most of us learn, from childhood to maturity, are therefore color blind not because color blindness is the right response to racial injustice but rather because color blindness is the ideal morality (for an ideal society).

But the color blind response to injustice in our society is doubly mistaken. Color blindness is not a fundamental principle of justice. Nor is it the strongest interpretation of such a principle for our society. Fairness is a fundamental principle of justice, and … it is a principle that does not always call for color blindness, at least not with regard to employment, university admissions, or electoral redistricting in our nonideal society. To respond to racial injustice with a color conscious principle or policy is therefore not to commit any wrong at all, provided the principle or policy is consistent with fairness.


From Democratic Education

Universities serve democracies best when they try to establish an environment conducive to creating knowledge that is not immediately useful, appreciating ideas that are not presently popular, and rewarding people who are—and are likely to continue to be—intellectually but not necessarily economically productive.


From Democracy and Disagreement

The conception of deliberative democracy defended here puts moral reasoning and moral disagreement back at the center of everyday politics. It reinforces and refines the practices of moral argument that prevail in ordinary political life—the ways in which citizens deal with moral disagreement in middle democracy. Its principles show citizens and their representatives how to live with moral disagreement in a morally constructive way. Deliberative democracy is more idealistic than other conceptions because it demands more than democratic politics normally delivers. It is more realistic because it expects less than moral agreement would promise. While acknowledging that we are destined to disagree, deliberative democracy also affirms that we are capable of deciding our common destiny on mutually acceptable terms.