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Penn has significant ties to Joe Biden. What might that mean?

There’s speculation on campus that Amy Gutmann, Penn’s long-serving president, could be tapped for a post in Biden’s administration, though no one in Biden's camp or the university would comment.

Joe Biden, then vice president, waves to the crowd as he and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann enter Franklin Field for the university's 257th commencement exercises May 13, 2013.
Joe Biden, then vice president, waves to the crowd as he and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann enter Franklin Field for the university's 257th commencement exercises May 13, 2013.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / File Photo

Before Joe Biden announced he would run for president, he appeared at the University of Pennsylvania for a conversation with Penn president Amy Gutmann.

Biden had joined Penn as a presidential practice professor after he left the White House and the university created a Washington-based center in his name focusing on diplomacy and global engagement.

“Thank you so much for being at Penn and being such a friend of Penn,” Gutmann told Biden as they began their discussion.

Now, there’s speculation on campus that Gutmann, Penn’s long-serving president, could be tapped for a post in Biden’s administration, possibly as education secretary. The university hasn’t responded to questions about whether Gutmann would be interested or had been asked. The same speculation occurred in 2016 before Hillary Clinton lost.

“Given who she is and what she does, it makes complete sense,” said Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies & education. “She’s done an amazing job at Penn and she’s evolved a lot.”

Mary Sadallah, vice president of Penn’s undergraduate assembly, said some Penn administrators are almost expecting Gutmann to go to Washington. There was a Reddit thread, too.

» READ MORE: Amy Gutmann: Penn's long-serving president seeks to bridge the divide

“It’s definitely the word on the street,” said Sadallah, 20, a junior philosophy, politics, and economics major from Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

Since 2004, Gutmann, a Harvard-educated political scientist, has led Penn, the largest private employer in Philadelphia with its 12 schools, more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and a large health system. She is one of the highest-paid college presidents in the country, earning about $3 million in 2017. She chaired President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, was named one of the top 50 global leaders by Fortune, and in 2018 was tapped as an Inquirer Business Hall of Fame Icon.

Both Biden and Gutmann have opined on the importance of compromise. Her 16th book is titled The Spirit of Compromise, Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. Biden in the days after the election has been emphasizing the need to talk across differences. When Gutmann invited Biden to serve as a presidential practice professor, she also sought to have a Republican leader do the same and tapped Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who is the son and brother offormer presidents. She later hosted Biden and Bush at a forum on immigration on campus where she had them craft a compromise on the polarizing issue.

She has talked about her status as a first-generation college student, whose father fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States.

» READ MORE: Biden says he will be based at Penn

Asked whether Gutmann was under consideration, a Biden-Harris transition spokesperson said: “The Biden-Harris Transition team has not made any personnel decisions at this time.”

The New York Times this week reported two national teachers' union leaders are contenders for education secretary: Lily Eskelsen García, who once led the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Some question whether Gutmann, who will turn 71 later this month, would want an administration job. Her contract at Penn expires in June 2022, which would give her 18 years at the helm. It would make her the university’s longest-serving president.

If the university were to launch a search for a new president, it likely would happen some time next summer, if not before. David L. Cohen, chairman of Penn’s board, did not respond to an email asking about whether the university wants to extend Gutmann’s contract orlaunch a search. Gutmann is wrapping up a $4.1 billion fund-raising campaign, set to be completed in 2021.

In any case, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement will remain, the university said. Biden took an unpaid leave of absence from the center in April 2019, after announcing he would run for president. The center was always intended to continue even after Biden moved on, the school said. Its website features a lead photo of Gutmann, Biden, and Penn board member and journalist Andrea Mitchell from the 2018 opening.

Could Biden’s focus on healing and putting aside differences shape the center’s course?

“My hope is that message and that influence will also lead the Biden Center at Penn to try to foster precisely that spirit,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education.

» READ MORE: Penn launches $4.1 billion fundraising campaign

Biden’s relationship with Penn started before the center.

In 2016, Biden launched his “moon-shot” initiative to cure cancer at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Biden’s son Beau, a Penn grad, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

Biden also attended his granddaughter Naomi’s graduation from Penn in May 2016 and was Penn’s commencement speaker in 2013. Since joining the university in 2017, he has appeared on campus more than a half dozen times.

His relationship with the University of Delaware goes back even further. Both he and his wife, Jill, are graduates. Biden got his bachelor’s in 1965 and Jill Biden received her bachelor’s in 1975 and her doctorate in education in 2006. Two entities at the university also bear Biden’s name — the Biden Institute and the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration. The university touts the connection and expects a boost in applications to its public policy school.

“The President-elect is a distinguished Blue Hen who regularly boasts about his association with UD,” the university said in a statement. “We expect as he moves into the most powerful job in the world, even more potential students will look to UD as a place where they too can become great.”

At Penn, Biden’s ties may pave the way for more scholars to participate in his administration in some way. Biden already named Penn’s Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethics expert, to his coronavirus task force.

“[Biden] has gained access to a group of scholars and people that he may not have known before and may be able to use them in some way or some capacity,” said Joni E. Finney, recently retired director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at Penn.

Biden isn’t the first president with Penn ties. President Donald Trump is an alumnus of Wharton, but Penn never embraced that tie.

“I did hear [Gutmann] say at one point that Trump was the only president of the past couple presidents she had not met,” Zimmerman said.

On Trump’s inauguration day, some described the mood on campus as a bit somber.

How will that be different when Biden, whom many at Penn have met or heard speak on campus, takes office?

“It almost feels personal to some students,” said Sadallah, the student government vice president.