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Amy Gutmann faced questions over Penn’s donations from China at hearing for ambassadorship

"What I do know and what I make sure is that no gifts, no contracts to the University of Pennsylvania are allowed to threaten academic freedom or allowed to threaten national security," Gutmann said.

Penn President Amy Gutmann
Penn President Amy GutmannRead moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann faced questions Tuesday about Penn’s donations from China, but largely batted them back during a relatively ruffle-free, 90-minute Senate foreign relations committee hearing on her nomination to become U.S. ambassador to Germany.

U.S. Sen. James E. Risch, the ranking Republican on the committee, noted that Penn received $86 million in donations and contracts from China since 2014, and he was surprised that Gutmann had previously said she wasn’t aware of most foreign donations and contracts, nor did she have a role in reporting them to the U.S. Department of Education. Universities’ ties to China have become an issue of increasing importance over the last several years with lawmakers concerned about the country’s influence. Members of both parties see China as America’s most prominent rival for global economic and political influence.

“I understand a university is a large operation,” said Risch, of Idaho. “However, as captain of the ship, you are in charge of it.”

» READ MORE: Penn got $258 million in foreign money

Gutmann, 72, who was being considered during the hearing along with nominees for two other posts, said the money from China is a small fraction — less than 1% — of the money Penn takes in. Penn, with its 12 schools and six hospitals, received $5 billion since 2014 and $10 billion over her presidency, which began in 2004. she said.

“It’s not surprising that I don’t know of specific gifts and contracts,” she said. “...What I do know and what I make sure is that no gifts, no contracts to the University of Pennsylvania are allowed to threaten academic freedom or allowed to threaten national security.”

“I think that’s a fair answer,” Risch responded.

» READ MORE: Biden will nominate Penn President Amy Gutmann as ambassador to Germany

Gutmann was introduced to the committee by Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, an indication of her bipartisan support. Gutmann, a Harvard-educated political scientist who has written on the spirit of compromise, for years has worked with politicians in both parties, inviting both Democrat Joe Biden, before he was president, and Republican Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who is son and brother to two former presidents, to serve as presidential professors of practice at Penn.

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

Both Toomey and Casey spoke glowingly of Gutmann’s accomplishments as the leader of Philadelphia’s largest private employer and longest-serving Penn president.

“During her tenure, she dramatically grew Penn’s endowment, expanded Penn’s commitment to science, technology and medical innovation and enhanced the university’s engagement in the Philadelphia community,” Toomey said.

The committee’s chair, Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), said Gutmann’s “years of experience” and “powerful family history will no doubt serve us well.”

She would take over as the U.S. representative to one of America’s most powerful European partners just as, Menendez noted, a new government takes hold in Germany and the country remains a critical ally in deterring Russian aggression.

“The importance of having a Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador in Berlin cannot be overstated. This is a critical time for the transatlantic relationship, and particularly for the United States and Germany,” Menendez said in his opening remarks. As Russia’s Vladimir Putin “continues to try to bully his way through Europe, we need strong U.S. representation, and close coordination with allies, to stand up for our partners, and reject illegitimate efforts to redraw the map of Europe.”

Gutmann, along with former Comcast executive David L. Cohen, was one of Biden’s most prominent early ambassador nominees. She has personal ties to Germany — her father fled Nazi Germany and settled in the United States — and an accomplished academic record. She was also in charge when Penn hired Biden to a lucrative teaching position during his years between the vice presidency and his 2020 campaign for president.

The hearing Tuesday came more than five months after Gutmann’s July nomination, much to the frustration of Democrats who have accused Republicans of stalling confirmations of uncontroversial nominees to significant positions. The Senate committee still has to vote on Gutmann’s nomination, which would then go to the full Senate for a final vote, neither of which have a clear timeline. Cohen was approved as ambassador to Canada last month.

If confirmed, Gutmann pledged to work on increasing trade and investment with Germany, combatting climate change, strengthening global health and countering terrorism. She also promised to “engage younger generations of Germans” on the U.S. role in rebuilding Germany.

“I would be excited to begin work during this key juncture in our relations as a new German government is stepping on to the global stage,” she said.