Amy Gutmann/Q&A

Amy Gutmann, Penn president Photo credit: Candace diCarlo
Amy Gutmann, Penn president

In January of 2004, a few months before Amy Gutmann became the University’s eighth president, she spoke publicly about what attracted her to Penn.

It is, she said, a place that is at once urban and international, multicultural and multidisciplinary, demanding and diverse.

Any avid teacher, which I pride myself on being, must first and foremost be an avid learner,” Gutmann noted. “At my stage of life, I can think of no better place to continue my education than at Penn, and no more of a demanding and exciting way to do it than as its president.”

Five years into her tenure, Gutmann says she continues to be inspired and challenged by her work leading the University.

“People ask me whether I enjoy my job. I love it, and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. It is truly inspiring to see the level of talent, and the level of commitment among our students and our faculty to making a positive difference in the world.”

Gutmann has achieved many major accomplishments—and has set some even bigger goals for the University’s future. She spearheaded Penn’s groundbreaking no-loan financial aid policy, ensuring that every undergraduate student on financial aid is able to receive a world-class education without the burden of significant debt. She led the purchase of the postal lands along the Schuylkill River with a vision toward transforming the site into Penn Park, 24 acres of lush, green space. And she kicked off the largest fundraising campaign in University history, forever raising Penn’s profile across the globe.

In addition to all of that, Gutmann still continues to find time to meet regularly with students, who remain at the center of her inspiration and Penn’s educational mission. “As I said to our incoming freshmen at Convocation, Penn stays forever young because of them, and I feel like I stay forever young because I spend time talking to them about their hopes and expectations,” she says.

The Current recently sat down with Penn’s president to talk about her first five years—and what she’s got in mind for the years to come.

Q. What’s been the biggest surprise of your tenure?
The biggest surprise is probably the same surprise everyone’s had to deal with—the economic downturn. We know that the only institutions that will not only survive, but thrive, are those that are the most adaptable to change, and I think that’s a key reason—along with our prudent financial strategies—that Penn is coming out ahead in these very tough times. It’s been remarkable how adaptable Penn has been.
The other surprise is just how many hidden treasures there are at Penn—everything from our wonderful Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology and the Morris Arboretum, to Kelly Writers House and our Philosophy, Politics and Economic (PPE) and Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) majors, which are two of the most popular majors in the College. We’ve done a lot to make all those gems much more visible than they were when I first arrived. In fact, everything at Penn is more in the spotlight these days, and for all the right reasons.

Q. What is Penn’s global role and its responsibility in the world?
Just as we’re committed to engaging locally, we’re also committed to making a difference in the world. Our program in Botswana is an excellent example of that. Our Medical School faculty began our operations in Botswana by helping the university in Gaborone and that country combat the AIDS epidemic, and it’s grown in the last five years into a model of global engagement that brings medical students, interns, residents and undergraduates to Botswana for internships.
The most common comment I hear from faculty and students alike is that it’s simply a life-transforming experience. When I visited Botswana, what I heard from everyone I met—from high-level government officials, including the president of the country, to the people who are running the university and the health system—was just how effective the partnership is with Penn and how much we ‘get it.’ It’s been extraordinary to see how rewarding the partnership has become. Our faculty and students get every bit as much out of their contribution to Botswana as we contribute to the country and the university there.
We’re now expanding our partnerships in China, in India and in other places around the world in similar ways, involving everyone from faculty to students and staff, and being deeply involved. What we’ve created is a positive and productive model, rather than, as I think of it, the negative model of sprinkling fairy dust over the world.
There also is another aspect to our global engagement, which is true of any great university, and that is, we foster faculty collaborations that, metaphorically, allow thousands of flowers to bloom around the world. We have, literally, thousands of collaborative arrangements among our faculty and students studying abroad, and we intend to continue to build ways for Penn to change the world.

Q. Speaking about students, one of the goals is to increase access to students of all backgrounds. How is Penn doing that?
Starting this September, every Penn undergraduate on financial aid will receive a no-loan package. That’s pathbreaking for Penn. It means graduates from this University will be able to pursue a career or graduate school without the burden of significant debt.
And that’s the way it should be. That’s a huge transformation in our undergraduate financial aid policy. At the same time, we have radically improved stipends for graduate students and for Ph.D. students in our School of Arts and Sciences, which encompasses the majority of our Ph.D. students.
I am particularly grateful to all the generous donors to financial aid at both the undergraduate and graduate level who have made it possible for us to make this a very high priority.

Q. Talk about interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Why is it important for faculty from different schools and disciplines to come together?
Penn has a great comparative advantage because we have 12 schools on one beautiful compact urban campus. That not only enables students and faculty to easily move among all of our schools, it also enables us to integrate knowledge. Why is integrating knowledge important? Because there is no major problem in the world today that can be solved by one discipline alone. We are in the business of developing knowledge that can be applied to addressing the world’s problems, not necessarily immediately but over time, and so when our faculty can collaborate, when our students can take courses that bring knowledge from different schools and disciplines together, they’re getting the very best education that a university can deliver.
Additionally, we are able to recruit and retain world-class faculty because we encourage interdisciplinary research and teaching. The PIK Professors—the Penn Integrates Knowledge Professors—are just the latest and most visible exemplars of our interschool, interdisciplinary philosophy.
For example, to have Sarah Tishkoff, whose work locates the origins of the human species, as a PIK Professor between Medicine and Arts & Sciences says it all. Or to have Chris Murray, who is a leader in nanoscience and technology, be based in both Engineering and in Arts & Sciences, says a lot about how our schools collaborate. Ultimately, it’s all about producing knowledge that helps the world solve tough problems, whether it’s energy efficiency, or figuring out where human life began. Our ten PIK Professors and hundreds of other eminent Penn faculty, who could write their tickets to any university, have chosen Penn as the place most supportive of collaborative, interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching.

Q. Another focus here at the University is sustainability. How is Penn going green and why is it important to make this a priority?
The survival of the planet depends on our figuring out ways to be more energy efficient and I want Penn to be a leader in two ways: One is to get everyone on campus to be serious about going green. The second is for Penn to be a world leader in the sort of research and teaching that leads to breakthroughs in environmental sustainability. At the moment, we are very proud, but not complacent, that half of the energy used at Penn is from wind power, and we’ve already met the Kyoto Protocol guidelines. We’re going to continue to push on everything from building greener buildings to improving our recycling rates. To make sure we keep moving forward, I recently announced our Climate Action Plan, which details the specific steps we are going to take to become the greenest university in the nation. I’m especially heartened by the real commitment that our students have shown in making Penn a more beautiful, vibrant and sustainable campus, one that people look to for inspiration.

Q. Did you want to talk a bit about Penn Park?
It is, without a doubt, a defining moment for Penn. We’re breaking ground on the project this fall, and it will be the most visible and important campus improvement since Locust Walk. When it’s completed in the spring of 2011, the surface parking lots running along the Schuylkill River will be a not-so-fond memory, and in their place, there will be 24 beautiful acres of verdant community space that will connect West Philadelphia with Center City, completing William Penn’s grid for Philadelphia.
No other urban campus has done something this visible and transforming. Over a two-year period our students, faculty, staff and alumni will see piles of dirt transformed into welcoming green space. Athletic fields along with elevated walkways will make Penn Park a beautiful destination on the Penn campus. All of our neighbors will benefit as well.

Q. You’re the CEO of Philadelphia’s largest private employer. What is Penn’s responsibility, as you see it, to the city and region?
We are an anchor institution. By that I mean we are here to stay and we see our success as intimately tied with the success of Philadelphia and the region. In our hundreds of millions of dollars of construction projects, we’ve been strongly committed to hiring locally, giving opportunities to local merchants, and setting goals for minority and women-owned contractors and businesses. The partnerships we’ve built with other institutions in our West Philadelphia neighborhood, such as the University City District, are thriving. Other new initiatives, including our Lucien Blackwell Apprenticeship Program, are having a tremendously positive influence in our community. All told, Penn generates an estimated $6.5 billion per year in economic impact to our city and $9.6 billion per year to our state. In short, at Penn we do well by the people of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because there’s a huge upside for the University, city, and state. I’ve often said it’s not noblesse oblige. It’s not altruism. It’s the right thing to do. Community engagement is a two-way street. I’ve written about the importance of reciprocity to civic life, and I think we practice it effectively at Penn.

Q. What are the goals of the $3.5 billion Making History campaign?
Everybody knows these are hard times for philanthropy and that makes me all the more proud that the Penn family has stepped up to the plate in our Making History campaign. We said at the outset that this is as much about participation as it is about the dollar number goal. It turns out we have had record levels of both participation and financial contributions. We have now exceeded 70 percent of our $3.5 billion goal. That number reflects literally hundreds of thousands of contributions, large and small. And as striking as that number is, it is only a reflection of what it enables Penn to do. It is the foundation of our no-loan financial aid policy; it is the underpinning for our Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professorships. It enables us to recruit and retain the phenomenal faculty we have. And, very importantly, it has enabled us to withstand the economic downturn as well as we’ve been able to do, which is arguably better than any other institution in higher education.
I’ve always said that the last half of the Making History campaign is going to be more challenging than the first half. I’m pleased to say we have already exceeded $2.5 billion. This year was the second largest in Penn’s history for cash receipts, which totaled $440 million. Last year, which was the kickoff to the campaign, was a record-breaking year with $604 million in cash receipts.
There’s nothing more significant about this campaign than the fact that last year, the hardest year economically in this nation’s recent history, we had more than 90,000 members of the Penn family contribute to the Making History campaign. That’s an impressive number in any type of economy, and we are extremely grateful to our donors.

Q. Are there any memorable moments at Penn that you’d like to share?
For me, one of the most wonderful features of life at a university is the rhythm of the academic year. I remember with great joy every Penn Convocation, including one during which it was absolutely pouring rain and all of our students were there on College Green, with ponchos on, smiles on their faces, and as eager as I was to begin the year. College Hall was drenched in red and blue lights, as beautiful as ever.
I love Convocations and Commencements because they elevate the meaning of what we do here through moving and memorable ceremonies that bring everybody together. I would be hard-pressed to choose my favorite Convocation or Commencement, which is why I’m always looking forward to the next one.
We bring the most talented students to Penn, encourage them to follow their passion, and then we send them into the world. But we never really let them go. They will always be part of the Penn community. We never lose them. We invite them back for Alumni Weekends and Homecomings. The wonderful thing is, as the Penn family continues to grow, Penn continues to become more and more eminent.

Q. You mentioned the economic downturn. What are some other big challenges you’ve had to face?
The wonderful thing about being Penn’s president, and the reason I think I have the best job in the world, is that everyday presents new challenges. The question I am always asking is, ‘Are we up to meeting those challenges?’ I’ve found that in every case the answer has been yes.
The biggest challenge moving forward is certainly going to be keeping an eye on economic realities while continuing to foster the highest academic expectations, with a clear focus on what Penn can do to make our society and the world better.
We are very prudently managed, which means we don’t waste money. I am very proud of how successfully we have found ways of doing more with less.

Q. Penn is a big place and I imagine you’re very busy. How do you stay in touch with students?
I make the time because the students are the beating heart of Penn, and I love being with them. I regularly have students to lunch. I invite them to my house. I teach proseminars and preceptorials. I have the freshman, sophomore and junior classes to my house for barbeques. I host holiday parties, and go to dozens of student performances, art exhibits, and athletic events. I love cheering on our teams at Franklin Field and The Palestra.
I listen closely to what students tell me. Listening is absolutely essential to leading. Our students are actively engaged in everything Penn has to offer; they learn a lot from inspiring professors, and also from their extracurricular and co-curricular activities and their engagement with our extended community. Students come to Penn not because they want to be isolated in an intellectual ivory tower. They want to be part of both an eminent intellectual community and all the hustle and bustle and vibrancy of an urban environment. And I encourage them to put their knowledge into practice, and learn leadership skills as part of their Penn education, well before they graduate.
I think it’s great that our students formed Penn Leads the Vote and turned out record numbers to vote in the last election. I love the fact that our students perform all kinds of funny and serious plays and musical events, and that they are fiercely competitive on the playing field. I’m proud of our creative writers and the students who are intensely involved in independent research and innovative scientific experiments. In fact, it is not uncommon for one Penn student alone to have done everything I just mentioned!
I would say to anybody who isn’t hopelessly cynical, come to Penn, you’ll have your idealism renewed. And it won’t be rose-colored glass idealism. It will be what I call a pragmatic idealism, the kind I think Ben Franklin would be proud of.

Originally published on October 1, 2009