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Confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann reflects on nearly 18 years as Penn’s president

Gutmann's tenure has been extraordinary. She has raised more than $10 billion, oversaw construction of many new buildings, prioritized student aid and led the school through a recession and pandemic.

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann introducing then Vice President Joe Biden at the university's Irvine Auditorium in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. Biden was the Benjamin Franklin presidential practice professor at Penn.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann introducing then Vice President Joe Biden at the university's Irvine Auditorium in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. Biden was the Benjamin Franklin presidential practice professor at Penn.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

When Amy Gutmann starts her job as the next U.S. ambassador to Germany, she’ll take a piece of the University of Pennsylvania with her: a little model of a new campus building to be named for her.

The model, the idea of a longtime colleague, was presented to Gutmann this week on behalf of the senior women leaders at Penn to mark her impending departure after nearly 18 years at the Ivy League university — making her the longest-serving president in Penn’s history. She plans to put it on her new desk in Berlin.

“It’s very emotional,” Gutmann said during an interview from her office at College Hall late Monday afternoon. “I’m choking up a lot.”

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

Gutmann, 72, a political scientist who has long opined on “the spirit of compromise,” was confirmed by the full Senate Tuesday afternoon, 54-42, and soon will take the oath of office. Before that, she will resign from the presidency at Penn, passing the torch to former provost Wendell E. Pritchett, who will serve as interim president until July 1 when M. Elizabeth “Liz” Magill, currently provost of the University of Virginia, will take over.

The vote in the Senate split along party lines with only six Republicans, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, voting in Gutmann’s favor. During the confirmation process, GOP senators had raised questions about Penn’s acceptance of money from China.

As Gutmann prepares to leave, she reflected on her presidency, her greatest accomplishments and challenges, her philosophy and her hopes.

“I’m absolutely sure I could have done it better, but I’m sure I did as well as I could do, being a mortal,” she said.

» READ MORE: University of Virginia provost will replace Amy Gutmann as Penn’s next president

Her tenure at Philadelphia’s largest private employer has been nothing short of extraordinary. She has raised more than $10 billion in two lengthy campaigns that allowed the university to make greater investments in student financial aid, new buildings, faculty and research. The university’s endowment has more than quintupled from $4.1 billion, when she left her post as provost of Princeton and joined Penn in 2004, to $20.5 billion this year.

She has overseen major construction projects, including a nanotechnology center, the 24-acre Penn Park, the $35 million Pennovation complex, and a 1.5 million-square-foot patient pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, the university has put up a new law school building, new college housing that makes it possible for all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, new buildings for political science and behavioral science and academic research, and the Perry World House for Global Engagement.

Gutmann started annual “innovation” and “engagement” prizes, awarding students who excel in developing projects that could change their local communities and the world. She has prioritized student aid, adopting an all-grants, no-loan financial policy early on in her presidency. Eighty percent of Penn undergraduates now leave Penn debt free, she said.

Part of Gutmann’s commitment to financial aid stems from her own past. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Monroe, N.Y., Gutmann’s father, Kurt, died when she was a junior in high school. He had no life-insurance policy, and Gutmann’s mother, Beatrice, became a secretary at the high school Gutmann attended. A family doctor suggested that Gutmann, who was a math whiz and class valedictorian, apply to Radcliffe, which at that time she had never heard of.

She went on a full scholarship including loans, which eventually were forgiven because of her service as a teacher. She later got her master’s in political science from the London School of Economics and her doctorate from Harvard. But she knows none of that would have been possible without the courageous decision made by her father decades ago: As a young man, he fled Nazi Germany to make a better life.

Now, she’ll return to that country as ambassador, a uniquely American dream.

“To go to the country that my father had to flee and to go as the U.S. ambassador is just historically meaningful,” she said, “not just to me, but it shows what an alliance — what the U.S. working with Germany was able to accomplish over a time period — that sadly my father never got to live to see.”

Gutmann has led Penn, with its 12 schools and six hospitals, through two major crises, first the recession that hit after the school adopted its no-loan policy and then the pandemic. Penn, like other universities, shut down its campus nearly two years ago and moved to remote instruction on a dime.

» READ MORE: For Penn. Gutmann's tenure is proving golden

In the early months of the pandemic, on her daily walks from the president’s house to her office, she was struck at how the bustling university of more than 23,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students had become “a ghost town.” The following months would become “probably the longest, toughest moment” of her presidency, she said, but also were filled with hope. Vital lab work continued. Students learned. The university found a way to make space in the top floor of a garage so performing arts students could still do their work, socially distanced.

“I was simultaneously realizing how hard it was to be sitting in front of a screen every day and counting my blessings that I was still able to have Penn move forward on everything we had to do to fulfill our mission under the most extenuating circumstances probably since WWII,” she said.

She acknowledged she has made mistakes. For one, she wishes she had moved move quickly to diversify her leadership team. In 2013, a group of senior faculty in the Africana studies department criticized her for failing to add leaders of color to her top administration. Penn later selected Pritchett, its first Black provost, as well a Black vice provost and two deans of color. Gutmann also noted that the university has increased female faculty and faculty from underrepresented groups.

“The face of Penn is very different, and I’m so proud,” she said.

» READ MORE: Penn has significant ties to Joe Biden. What might that mean?

Gutmann started her presidency demonstrating she cared about the West Philadelphia community, even painting lockers at Sayre Middle School during an event leading up to her inauguration. But Penn has continued to face criticism for not making payments in lieu of taxes to the city, even though the university in 2020 committed $100 million to the school district over 10 years and more recently more than $4 million to nearby Lea Elementary over five years.

With time, Gutmann said, the university likely will do even more. But there’s a limit.

“I’ve spent as much money as I could find that is not tied to things that we have to do,” she said. “Our mission isn’t to take our endowment and empty it into the city coffers.”

Donors may be reluctant to support the university if it did, she said.

Among Gutmann’s proudest accomplishments are the medical innovations that helped in the battles against cancer and more recently the coronavirus. Two Penn scientists recently received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for their success in modifying the genetic molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) so it can instruct human cells to make customized proteins. That helped teach the human immune system to fight off the coronavirus.

In October, the university announced that a new data science building under construction would be named for Gutmann, a decision in consultation with Harlan M. Stone, a Penn trustee who made a $25 million gift for the building. It will be the first “mass timber” building in the city, a low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel and a nod to sustainability, which Gutmann found particularly fitting.

And Gutmann plans to be around to hear all about it. She and her husband, Michael W. Doyle, a professor at Columbia, last year bought a house in Philadelphia near Penn and will keep the city, which she said won her over very early, as their home base. She’ll also remain a tenured member of the faculty, on unpaid leave while she is serving as ambassador.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to go.

“I’ve known this from the beginning,” she said, “how hard it will be to say goodbye.”

Staff writers Jonathan Tamari and Tom Avril contributed to this report.