Amy Aims East

Amy Gutmann is making news with her bold plan to link the Penn campus with Center City. But will she stick around long enough to see any of it built?


One of the most plugged-in members of Philadelphia’s ­inner-circle power crowd is talking about Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., who has served as president of the University of Pennsylvania since 2004. And after 20 minutes spent sincerely praising her intellect and the significant positive impact she’s made academically and financially at Penn in less than two years, the man is about to wind up when he hesitates — dithers for a moment — he can’t help himself — and the words skid out.

“You know, you’re sitting there with her, and you suddenly realize, ‘Geez, there’s something about her,’” he blurts helplessly. “Somehow, the inside comes out — and that’s neat. The personality combined with the physical is very attractive.”

Oh, good heavens. He knows that he should be thinking of Gutmann — he is thinking of Gutmann — as the academic who taught for 28 years at Princeton and has published seven books on pluralism and deliberative democracy, and even edited A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law, by Antonin “benign Sicilian gesture” Scalia. Gutmann has been praised by Penn faculty and trustees for her academic cred and fund-raising prowess, and our Philadelphian with the crush has just raved about her ability to manage Penn’s massive health system, 23,700 students, and a board of trustees that includes such shy types as Ronald Perelman and David L. Cohen.

But there it is: Gutmann’s doing nothing untoward to draw this kind of attention, in fact Gutmann is entirely appropriate, but people notice that this slim blond woman with the cool outfits and high heels is, in the vernacular of Paris Hilton, hot. Even women feel this way. “She’s very feminine and stylish,” observes Penn trustee Marie Savard.

Gutmann, who is 56, is about to draw even more scrutiny this summer as she unveils the most ambitious project of her Penn tenure: the transformation of 24 acres south of the 30th Street Post Office from an expanse of pothole-filled parking lots and rusty train tracks to a showplace of green space and contemporary architecture. So alluring will the new “East Campus” be, Penn hopes, that it will not only make getting from campus to, say, Rittenhouse Square a more pleasant experience; it will make Center City dwellers abandon their tables at Rouge and run across a glossily remade South Street Bridge to revel in riverside loveliness and cafés.

For Gutmann, the plan is her “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” moment, a chance to finally bridge the Rubiconesque waters between West Philly and Center City. It’s potentially her Penn legacy, a maneuver that will render the urban campus more “beautiful and useful,” as Gutmann says. Indeed, the plan is intriguing enough that Penn trustee Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, calls it “the most important step since the university became the modern Penn.”

Predictably, though, because this is Philly, the plan has put knickers in twists on both sides of the Schuylkill: Gutmann’s interest in linking Penn more closely with the city has some Penn faculty feeling abandoned. “Her campus presence is minimal,” says one professor. On the other side of town, Gutmann was stung by criticism last year that she hadn’t been enough of a presence in Center City power circles. And yet there are now rumblings that Harvard, whose president, Larry Summers, steps down this month, is eager to poach Gutmann — which strikes fear into the hearts of the exact same people who have a quibble or two with her, but who don’t want her to leave.

Again, very Philly.

“WE WANT TO CONTINUE William Penn’s vision of a grid for Philadelphia, taking the historic view and extending the urban grid on this 24-acre parcel,” says Amy Gutmann, in her office in Locust Walk’s College Hall. “The area is now, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly,” she adds in an enthusiastic, no-nonsense tone. (She is wearing a chic black suit as she says this, by the way.)

Gutmann has been gathering support for her East Campus plan almost since the day she was invested at Penn two years ago, but the concept of buying the land for such an expansion has been floating around since 1982. Trustee Alvin Shoemaker reached out to the postal service about the parcel back in the Reagan era; negotiations went on (and off), and in the late ’90s, a deal was finally reached that calls for Penn to take possession of the real estate in spring 2007. With this windfall imminent, Gutmann quickly put together a campus planning and development committee upon coming into office, and that group of trustees and faculty took to the streets around the post office to see what might be done.

Took to the waters, too, actually: “We rented a double-decker bus, we went on a river tour, we walked the site and went over to PECO and looked at it from their vantage point,” recalls Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s executive vice president. And as the group floated down the Schuylkill, Gutmann and her committee kept in mind four principles that would ideally be adhered to with whatever was built: The expansion would be in context with the existing Penn; undergraduate education would remain where it is — at the core of campus; that campus and Center City would be better linked by whatever arose; and development would be phased, and land banked, for future use.

Penn’s great divide has been in place ever since the school packed up at 9th and Chestnut in 1872 and headed west, and the subsequent ghettoization of Penn has been such that at one point, its trustees seriously considered moving the university to Valley Forge. The city, naturally, wanted to keep the school and its revenues where they were, and in the 1960s agreed to condemn blocks of West Philly that enabled Penn to build much-needed modern housing, including the dorms known as the “superblock.” Part of the legacy of Judith Rodin, Gutmann’s highly regarded predecessor, was to repair still-ruffled relations with West Philly, even as she added the campus infrastructure that enabled students to finally enjoy a Stephen Starr restaurant (Pod on Sansom Street).

Gutmann wants to make her stamp on the campus even more fabulous. “In the ’60s, the campus was transformed with a beautiful green, and with Locust Walk and Woodland [Walk],” says Dennis Pieprz, an architect of the postal lands plan. “Those used to be roads, and now Woodland goes all the way to the train station through Drexel. Now, in the 21st century,” he adds, “there’s an opportunity to extend Locust Walk to the river and beyond.” Though the plans won’t be formally unveiled until late this month, Gutmann is particularly excited about literally bridging the gap between Penn’s campus and Center City via four bridges: three now existing, at Walnut, Chestnut and South streets, and a new pedestrian bridge to extend Locust Walk over to the Rittenhouse/Fitler area of town.

“Instead of parking sprawl, we have the opportunity to create a lively edge and green space,” Gutmann explains, adding that Walnut Street near the river will be especially dramatically transformed, into an area of restaurants, shops and a new hotel. Down by the Palestra, a series of massive platforms will be built above the existing rail lines to hold athletic and recreational fields. “There will be a new field house and great green space,” she says. “What you’ll see from Center City and the Expressway will be beautiful.”

It turns out that transforming one tacky area of campus is a bit like remaking your kitchen in glossy granite, then realizing the rest of the house looks horrible in comparison; it engenders the need for more of a redo. Pieprz, the architect, says that as he and Penn’s committee walked the campus, it became apparent that some of the 1950s and ’60s buildings will need to be replaced over the next decade, too. So the push toward the East Campus will ripple through all of Penn — once the funding is in place. And Gutmann has shown she can get that funding. She’s already increased Penn’s endowment — which, at $5 billion, is still low compared to Harvard’s $25 billion — by a billion dollars since she arrived.

The reaction to all this on campus? Generally, people either like Gutmann or don’t dislike her. But as Harvard’s Summers famously discovered, it’s inherent in the nature of tenured faculty to whine. Some faculty worry that her focus on real estate development and Center City will be a distraction from loftier academic pursuits and campus life. “There’s been so little of her on campus,” says a professor. “She’s never created a real identity.” He goes on to complain that Gutmann is too informal — a “girl in a woman’s job,” he grouses, adding that he preferred the more authoritarian, regal Rodin style.

“Penn is a company,” says Daily Pennsylvanian editor Jeff Greenwald. “When she came in, we said, ‘We needed a CEO, and we got a provost.’” He’s been surprised, though, at how adept Gutmann has proven at wrangling money. “She’s very much a cheerleader type of personality — it’s been great with fund-raising.” Then Greenwald adds the one thing that must rankle Gutmann more than anything else: He measures her against Judy Rodin.

THOUGH IT’S POSSIBLE that Rodin spent her first week as president of Penn tooling around Rittenhouse Square on a bike, as Gutmann did, it seems unlikely. “I always knew I’d like Philadelphia, because I’d visited it a lot,” says Gutmann, a regular at Pod and the White Dog Cafe who now lives full-time in the president’s residence at Penn. (Her husband commutes to Columbia.) “The first day I was here, I was on my bike, and someone waved to me and said, ‘You’re the new president of Penn!’”

Gutmann’s slim frame exudes nuclear-quality energy — her very leanness connotes efficiency — which is good, since in the past six months she’s traveled to Mumbai, Beijing and Singapore to schmooze alumni. “Penn is a brand name in India,” she says — so much so that 300 people attended a dinner she gave there. (She also famously rode an elephant, no doubt annoying her faculty critics.) In her spare moments, Gutmann goes to movies (she just saw Inside Man — “Jodie Foster is our commencement speaker; I have to introduce her”), she plays tennis, she bikes, she hosts dinners for friends such as Toni Morrison.

The fact that Gutmann earns nearly $700,000 a year seems, oddly, almost beside the point — though it might explain the cool-looking outfits. “Power doesn’t feel like her thing,” says one Penn trustee. Gutmann’s “real human being” qualities include admitting to liking The Daily Show and Sex and the City, and including Some Like It Hot in her list of favorite movies. (She also smells very good, which you’ll notice if you sit near her.) Then again: Gutmann is the woman who has expanded on democratic ethics in thousands of pages of scholarly works, and whose idea of a good time is to host a debate between George Will and Toni Morrison on the nature of values as opposed to virtues.

“It always comes back to the parents,” says trustee Marie Savard. “The deliberative democracy — that could be from them.” Well, yes, given that Gutmann’s father, Kurt, a metallurgist, fled Nazi Germany and settled in India in the 1940s. On a vacation to the U.S. in 1948, he attended a party at New York’s Essex House, where he met Beatrice, Gutmann’s mother, who had sneaked into the party pretending to be a journalist. The pair married weeks later, and honeymooned at the Taj Mahal Hotel. (“I was conceived in India,” Gutmann says.) Their only child was born in the U.S., where her father started a scrap-metal business. The family moved to a small town north of New York City, and Gutmann has talked of the family feeling a bit apart from neighbors, of never having had ketchup or peanut butter and jelly or similarly American junky joys.

Gutmann’s father died when she was 16, and on the advice of the family physician, she applied to Radcliffe, where she was awarded a full scholarship. Gutmann says this is the only way she could have attended Harvard, and in April, she announced that Penn — catching up with Harvard and Prince-ton — will provide a full ride to any student whose family earns less than $50,000 a year. Gutmann was at Harvard in the late 1960s, attended Vietnam protests, and emerged after four years there intent on an academic career studying social justice and ethics. After earning a master’s degree in political science at the London School of Economics, she returned to Harvard and met her husband, who was in law school there, while she pursued her Ph.D. With that accomplished, she took a teaching job at Princeton, where she founded the Center for Human Values, which studies ethics and human rights. The couple had a daughter, Abigail, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Harvard.

Despite her three decades at Princeton, Gutmann insists she’s an unqualified Penn convert, and recently wrote a story for the academic journal the Chronicle of Higher Education that recounted her fondness for Rittenhouse Square and the Reading Terminal Market — but Greenwald, her Daily Pennsylvanian skeptic, still sounds concerned. “She constantly brings up Princeton when she’s speaking,” he complains. “She does it in a joking manner — but it makes people uneasy.”

IN THE RECENT April Fool’s issue of the Daily Pennsylvanian, a mock story trumpeted that Gutmann had resigned to take the Harvard job. “Harvard’s search committee stands behind its decision,” wrote the DP. “A press release from the committee cited Gutmann’s ‘style and adorable mannerisms’ among the reasons she is the perfect candidate. … When Penn does announce its pick, experts believe it will choose someone as attractive — if not more so — than Gutmann. ‘Penn is definitely the insecure middle daughter of the Ivy League family,’ said John Q. Education, vice president of the Federal University and College Knowledgebase. ‘It needs a pretty face to feel good about itself.’”

What if Gutmann is wooed by Harvard or Princeton? “I love what I’m doing at Penn, and I plan to be here for the foreseeable future,” says Gutmann.

“Harvard’s Harvard; if they came calling, she’d probably listen,” speculates Phil Semas, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They’re just starting the process. I’d be surprised if she wasn’t on the initial list, but given the way they operate, she might not have any interest. I’d rather be president of Penn than Harvard.”

Maybe so — but with Penn, you get Philly, making Penn’s presidency the Ivy League gig with the most energy-sucking external civic demands. Sure, the president of Prince-ton has to do some around-town networking — but in a leafy and adorable burg, how hard is that? And though Columbia is an urban university, the sheer hugeness of New York City ensures that its president needn’t become a highly visible player in city politics. Gutmann, especially over the past six months, has had to become just that.

“Because she came in after Judy Rodin, who had a particularly powerful impact on the university and the community, there were people who worried that Amy would turn inward, and focus more on the university,” says city commerce director Stephanie Naidoff. “I have seen quite the opposite from her; she is very much aware of the need to keep the partnership between the city and the university going strong.” Gutmann has certainly become a more familiar presence at rites of Philly insiderdom: the Flower Show black-tie party, the Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York, the Margaret Garner opera premiere, an Eagles game. “I don’t have to do those; I do those [things],” says Gutmann, smiling. “It was one of the great attractions of the job.” And trustees and politicos have noticed.

Gutmann has doubtless realized that her real job is basically an impossible one of appeasing the power crowd and raising money, while leading the university and being criticized by the competing interests all at the same time. “People don’t dislike Amy at all,” says the Daily Pennsylvanian’s Greenwald. “She’s doing a pretty good job.” Which is probably about as effusive as anyone on Penn’s question-everything campus is going to get. “The buzz on Amy is favorable,” offers a professor, who says that Gutmann’s commitment to raising funds for graduate-level education pleasantly surprised him. “I see no signs that she’s going to be a distant president — she has an open door for faculty.”

One Penn watcher tells a story in which a Penn employee had a meeting with Gutmann not long after she started. The employee was “mildly shocked” when Gutmann pulled over a chair to sit right next to him, rather than behind her desk. That wouldn’t have happened with Judith Rodin. “Amy’s kind of more accessible,” he says, “a little bit more like a real person. In the end, I believe she’ll be understood better by the city.”