Amy Gutmann Is Brilliant, Boring, Inclusive, Safe, Distant, Warm, and Able to Stand on Her Head.

Does all of that, not coincidentally, make her the most successful president Penn has ever had?

Photograph by Justin James Muir

Photograph by Justin James Muir

One afternoon in early December, Amy Gutmann, dressed in a puffy blue coat, exits her office and traverses Locust Walk to her next appointment, a quarter mile away. It’s a five-minute jaunt for an able-bodied adult who isn’t the president of the University of Pennsylvania. Alas, that rules out Gutmann, who is approached by students wherever she goes. They encircle her like puppies swarming their owner. One student strikes up a conversation about food insecurity on campus. Another asks for a hug. Someone promotes a dance show. “I can’t make it, but good luck,” Gutmann replies cheerfully. A bespectacled pupil named Katrina, short of breath, doesn’t even know what to say.

“I’m just amazed that I see you in person, that’s all,” says Katrina, who sounds like she’s speaking to Hamlet’s apparition. “People always joke: Amy Gutmann, a sighting is like Where’s Waldo?”

Gutmann, who just finished her 12th year as Penn’s president, has become a unique kind of celebrity on campus. She’s both lovable and distant: Greta Garbo, not Gwyneth Paltrow. Her campus admirers see her at long distances or in photos. In absence of actual contact with their president, students have created a meticulous lore. They say Gutmann never enters or exits her house, and yet one student says if you peek in the second-floor window, The View plays religiously at night. There’s a seven-year-old feature called “Chasing Amy” run by the student website Under the Button — “in which we lightly (but not creepily) stalk President Amy Gutmann’s personal and professional (but mostly personal) life” — chronicling everything from her appearances at the Rave movie theater to her fictitious escapades at Copabanana to her globe-trekking in Korea. One brash student penned a low-grade S&M chapter involving Gutmann, the cougar, and himself, the cable guy. A senior told me she hadn’t seen Gutmann since convocation and didn’t expect to until commencement.

Gutmann, a buoyant 67-year-old grandmother of two, seems willing to make light of her elusiveness today.

“What year are you?” she asks Katrina.

“I’m a sophomore.”

“See, it didn’t take that long to meet me.”

Katrina laughs and, unsure how to proceed with the conversation — what do you say to Amy f-ing Gutmann? — feels compelled to apologize: “I wasn’t trying to be creepy. … ”

Gutmann saves her from her own awkwardness, insisting on a photo. When she isn’t accompanied by a photographer, an assistant takes snapshots. One of her communications aides hands Katrina a card to fill out so she can email the pic.

Ironically, when Gutmann began this job in 2004, there were rumblings that her personal warmth registered as too informal, lacking the gravitas necessary for the CEO of Philly’s most important institution. (Penn not only leads the way intellectually in Philadelphia; it’s the city’s largest private employer.) Gutmann had spent 28 years at Princeton, first as a renowned political theorist — her writings on democracy and its relationship to multiculturalism, education and the spirit of compromise won numerous awards — and then as an administrator. Princeton is both Penn’s rival and its Ivy League opposite, known for its suburban splendor and old-school approach. (It has no medical, law or business school.) So Gutmann started off under the gun. “I think she was aware that people were worried she’d neglect the professional schools and turn Penn into Princeton,” says one longtime friend.

Early in her tenure, she crushed every test — leading the most successful fund-raising campaign in university history, expanding Penn’s global footprint, diversifying both the faculty and the student body. And then, ironically, the critiques of her flipped. People now say she’s too remote and also too corporate; that she makes too much money ($3.3 million a year — second highest in the Ivy League) and is too risk-averse. Several of her defining moments have come from what she hasn’t said more than what she has. When a swath of student suicides struck the campus four years ago, Gutmann’s reaction was pilloried as cold and out-of-touch. More recently, when 1968 Wharton alum Donald Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate, Gutmann put up a wall of silence, refusing to denounce Trump or his views. It held even after he became the first Penn graduate in the Oval Office. This despite the fact that Gutmann has written books (yes, plural) about the primacy of multiculturalism and deliberation in democracy — the exact opposite of what Trump projects.

[Gutmann made her first formal rebuke of Trump’s White House days after this story was published in our February issue.]

By almost every measure, Penn’s progress has accelerated during her 12.5-year presidency. Yet that’s not enough for everyone. “She’s been an extremely successful conventional president,” one professor says smugly.

As an academic, Gutmann specialized in political theory. As Penn’s president, her defining characteristic — and the reason for much of her success — has been her political savvy, her ability to make change without making too many waves. She hasn’t embodied the imperial threat Penn projected in the 1960s and ’70s, gobbling up parcels of West Philly at an insatiable clip. Nor is she the face of a liberal-arts idealism that bows to every student demand. Gutmann isn’t a higher-ed corporate titan like NYU’s John Sexton or a hard-charging blowhard like onetime Harvard honcho Larry Summers. In this era in which the average tenure of a university president is precipitously dropping, Gutmann just signed her third contract extension, cementing her in place until at least 2022, when she’ll become the longest-serving president in Penn history.

Gutmann’s predecessor, Judith Rodin, had a remarkable run of success, lifting Penn to fourth place in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings and steering the medical system out of near-bankruptcy. Some observers say Gutmann has been more like Tim Cook to Rodin’s turn as Steve Jobs — which raises the question: For all her success, is Amy Gutmann playing it too safe?

Say what you want. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

A TALL, GANGLY STUDENT in a tuxedo keeps sidling up to Gutmann inside Rockwell Gymnasium as she offers a master class in hobnobbing. She’s attending the annual Scholarship Celebration, a handsome reception at which students on financial aid meet the donors who’ve been supporting them. Hundreds of people are squeezed into the basketball teams’ cavernous practice facility, which tonight is unrecognizable, having been ornamented with blue and red drapes. Gutmann pinballs past the open bar and hors d’oeuvres table, snakes through the center of the room — selfie here, handshake there — and, somewhere in the thicket, lays a gentle hand on the shoulder of the sidler, who all in one motion pivots to his friend and thrusts out his tongue like Michael Jordan. “I feel like the chosen one,” he says.

There’s a synergy of new ambition and old money in this space full of pimpled faces and benevolent trustees. This is Gutmann’s university in a nutshell. “Twenty years ago, this event could have fit in a phone booth,” über-trustee George Weiss tells me a few days later. “Now, we’re thinking about the Palestra.”

In 2004, when Gutmann outlined her manifesto for vaulting Penn from “excellence to eminence,” she set financial aid squarely first in her order of operations. The Penn Compact, as she called it, would require moral integrity and an adherence to three main principles: “to increase access, to integrate knowledge, and to engage locally and globally.” All were issues that are close to her heart.

It may seem petty to compare the relative riches of Ivy League schools, but Penn, for most of its existence, has been a tuition-dependent institution, whereas Princeton has been more like Switzerland — minuscule but with outsize wealth. Princeton can dip into its endowment for all of its scholarships. Penn — especially for Gutmann’s Compact — must continually raise funds for most of its financial aid. “All of that requires money, and it’s not the kind of money that donors get to put their names on,” says Camille Charles, director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies. Or as Lee Spelman Doty, a longtime trustee, puts it, “The big question mark on Amy was, could she be a fund-raiser?” Gutmann launched a five-year, $3.5 billion fund-raising campaign in 2007. It wound up pulling in more than a billion dollars on top of the goal. “I laugh now because she’s just masterful at it,” adds Spelman Doty. Some trustees say she’s an expert at tailoring her requests to the specific interests of donors, so that her ideas feel like their own. “People really want to please Amy Gutmann,” says Weiss.

Over the course of dozens of interviews, nearly every fan, friend, former colleague, mentor and all-around supporter of Gutmann seemed to be feeding me one message, over and over: For Amy, it’s all about the kids. But Gutmann — who, unlike many Ivy League presidents, doesn’t hold office hours — has a history of decreasing access to student reporters. So the gushing portrayal felt a little too Dead Poets Society to be true.

But onstage at the Scholarship Celebration, Gutmann relays her life story to the audience: A full-scholarship student at Harvard, she was the first in her family to graduate from college: “I was one of you,” she says. Higher ed has given Gutmann everything, from a family (she met her husband at Harvard) to practically every notch on her C.V. What’s presidential is also personal for Gutmann. During her tenure, first-generation college students at Penn have risen from five percent of the freshman class to 12 percent. The average net cost for students on financial aid has actually gone down by several thousand dollars, though the tuition sticker price has marched steadily upward. A first-generation/low-income student center opened this past year, offering a food pantry for students and a library with free textbooks.

Gutmann’s record on economic diversity has been glowing, but Penn still lags behind Ivy League peers when it comes to racial inclusion. That’s true of the student body and of the faculty. In 2013, a group of black faculty members, including Charles, refused to attend a “diversity dinner” at Gutmann’s house after rebuking her “cosmetic — not substantive — progress” in hiring people of color as deans and high-level administrators. In the years since, Gutmann has converted opponents into allies, having hired three scholars of color as deans (out of seven vacancies). “Once we were able to get her attention and have a real conversation about it, she made things happen pretty quickly,” says Charles.

That answers a question Gutmann poses in the title of one of her books: Why Deliberative Democracy? It works (duh), which is why she consistently employs democratic principles in her leadership. “She has that executive skill, but it comes after a process that really does look something like a seminar,” says Dennis Thompson, her co-author on the book. Gutmann herself isn’t so quick to say she practices exactly what she preaches. “The premium on leadership these days, especially in a complex institution, is to hear from a large number of people, deliberate with a smaller group of people, and then make decisions,” she says. “But universities are not democratic institutions.”

Maybe not, but autocrats rarely succeed in higher ed. Gutmann is adept at building alliances. One reason students don’t see her more is that she’s constantly giving and getting face time with administrators and professors, including making regular appearances before the faculty senate and hosting intimate meals at her house. Even sort-of rivals like Drexel president John Fry describe close relationships with Gutmann. Beyond forestalling no-confidence votes and turf wars with Drexel, there’s another advantage to Gutmann’s approach, says David L. Cohen, Comcast executive and chairman of the board of trustees at Penn: “Amy projects a softer style of leadership. I think people followed Judy [Rodin] because they respected her. I think people follow Amy because they like her.”

IF NOT FOR for Harvard’s hubris, Philly would never have gotten Gutmann. Early in 2001, the Cambridge Ivy was locked in a presidential search, having winnowed the candidates to four: in-house provost Harvey Fineberg (the safe bet), University of Michigan president Lee C. Bollinger (vanilla), Larry Summers, the pugnacious former Treasury Secretary (the interloper), and Gutmann (the big unknown). At the time, Gutmann had served three years as dean of faculty at Princeton, but she lacked the star power of Summers or Fineberg’s in-house familiarity. In the end, she lost out to Summers, a splashier, brasher man who had a propensity for foot-in-mouth embarrassments. And that’s only where the comparisons between Gutmann and Hillary Clinton begin.

Several people drew this parallel. One brought it up to make the point that Gutmann, like Clinton, absorbs unfair criticism because she’s a woman in power. Another used it in a purely complimentary way in regard to Gutmann’s stately demeanor. But mostly, people employ it to explain a disconnect they perceive when it comes to Gutmann: She has a pretty damned inspiring backstory, but it’s one that students and the general public don’t know.

Gutmann’s standing as an Ivy League triple-crown winner — Harvard, Princeton, Penn — begins with her father escaping Nazi Germany in 1934, fleeing to India, and meeting Gutmann’s American mother. Their only daughter was conceived on a honeymoon six years later and born in Brooklyn (she still has an accent) before they moved out to the suburb of Monroe. (“It was very rural at the time,” Gutmann insists.) After graduating from high school in 1967 (perhaps the ultimate sign of her unassuming identity is that her alma mater, Monroe-Woodbury High, doesn’t list her under “famous alumni” on its Wiki page, while a minor-league wrestler, Bull Dempsey, does appear), Gutmann planned on attending local college. A family physician suggested she think a little bigger. “I had no idea about need-based scholarships — that you could actually get a scholarship and have a place like the Ivy League be affordable,” she says.

Her own foray into college birthed a lifelong commitment to financial aid in higher education that she often discusses. But there are other parts of her life story that Gutmann is less willing to revisit. During her sophomore year at Harvard in 1969, at the height of all the LSD romping, anti-war demonstrating and sexual revolutionizing on campus, students took over University Hall and were forcibly removed by police. What was Gutmann up to? “I did a lot of community service,” she says. What ought to be life chapters with Gutmann get reduced to haiku.

From Harvard, Gutmann progressed along a straightforward and exceptional academic route, earning, without pause, a master’s at the London School of Economics and her Harvard doctorate. In 1976 she landed at Princeton, where she’d mint her reputation as one of the premier political theorists in the United States. Her byline appeared in lefty magazines like the American Prospect, the New Republic and Dissent as well as in prominent academic journals.

Many of the concepts she’s returned to in the 16 books she’s edited and authored are the ones that have defined her leadership, both in style and substance. The titular subject of her latest book, The Spirit of Compromise, has become a framework for how she governs. “My whole career has been of a piece,” Gutmann says. “It’s not that there’s been a radical break with all the things I’ve previously loved and found that I could do. It’s just building on those, building exponentially.”

All it took was a little nudge from Princeton president Harold Shapiro for Gutmann to consider leaving faculty for administration. In the late 1980s, a group of professors from across disciplines hatched an idea to create a center for ethics at Princeton. “President Shapiro asked if I would meet one of the biggest donors in Princeton history,” Gutmann recalls. She drove from Princeton to New York, parked outside 30 Rock in midtown Manhattan, and zipped up to room 5600, the office of Laurance S. Rockefeller. At the end of a two-hour meeting, Gutmann had $1 million. Within two weeks, Rockefeller had committed another $20 million. “I didn’t realize at the time quite how pivotal it was,” she says. “We created something out of nothing.” It was her first fund-raising attempt.

The University Center for Human Values was Gutmann’s lasting imprint on Princeton. “It’s one of the most vital intellectual units we have,” says Shapiro, now a president emeritus. In 2001, Gutmann ascended from dean of faculty to provost. “This is all speculation,” Shapiro adds, “but in my judgment, she certainly would have been a very serious contender for president.”

So why did Gutmann venture to our trash-filled streets from the comfortable confines of Mercer County? While her answer — “It was an opportunity for me to make the maximal difference in people’s lives” — is generic, it’s true.

I TRIED FOR a month to snag time with Gutmann while she participated in her favorite activities — iyengar yoga, bike riding, standing on her head (literally; she can do this). But in a PR strategy that speaks to her carefulness, all I got was 45 minutes sandwiched in between meetings she had with advisers and her train down to attend Obama’s Hanukkah party at the White House. When I met her in her office, which is full of natural light and photos of her grandkids, Gutmann was wearing, well, nice clothes. That’s all you really need to know. The last time this magazine profiled her, a decade ago, there were 400 or so words on her, um, sensual leadership, right down to how great she smells. Curiosity regarding her is legion. When I tell most Philadelphians that I’m doing a story on Amy Gutmann, they ask, “How old is she?” My answer is inevitably followed by a wow-she’s-a-goddess gaping mouth. So yes, Gutmann is a 67-year-old grandmother of two, and yes, she looks great. Moving on.

Our conversation seemed no more intimate, though, than her exchanges with her fangirl students. She stuck with anecdotes I’d already read elsewhere. When I asked if she had any regrets from her first dozen years on the job, she told me she wished she’d gotten to know Philly before her presidency (not really an answer) and mentioned a stranger yelling to her in Rittenhouse Square during her first days in town. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told this,” she said. The incident was actually the opening anecdote of an essay she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education 10 years ago and has appeared in multiple clips since.

Sipping tea and offering up answers that felt lifted from a press release (aside from one story about wild tigers in India — for my ears only), Gutmann just reinforced the cautious, conventional image her critics lay out. And why not? Perhaps the best thing she can do for Penn is not cause harm. One trustee told me, “The essence of leadership is being responsible for problems in your organization that you can’t control.” The inverse also applies: You do your best to not create problems. Plus, her rare acts of candor have landed her in the press — a place she doesn’t care to be.

In 2006, a viral controversy erupted when Gutmann, dressed as Glinda the Good Witch at her then-annual Halloween party, had her picture taken with a student clad as a suicide bomber, in AK-and-dynamite swag. The Internet, particularly right-wing blogs, had a field day. Déjà vu struck in 2014 when, at another holiday party chez Gutmann, students protesting the death of Missouri teenager Michael Brown disrupted the fete. Gutmann, in her red blazer, red shoes and red lipstick, lay down on the floor as part of the students’ die-in, supporting their message of anti-police brutality by proclaiming that “black lives matter.”

To many on campus, this was the Gutmann they’d been clamoring for: spontaneous, bold, embodying the values she’d espoused in decades of writing. Alas, her actions pissed off the head of Penn’s police union, who called them a “slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university.” National outlets like the Huffington Post played up the controversy, ignoring the overwhelming support Gutmann received from her students and faculty. (Holiday parties have since moved to a different venue.) There’s more risk than reward for Gutmann in putting herself out there.

Which brings us to Trump. In September, an online petition started by an alum asking that she denounce his rhetoric garnered hundreds of signatures. Gutmann didn’t comment. Weeks later, a group of Oklahomans emailed hundreds of Penn freshmen of color images of lynchings and racist screeds. The incident made national news and triggered an FBI investigation. Gutmann rejiggered travel plans to be with students who organized a town hall. But as far as a statement on Trump, still, there was nothing. Students, staff and the local media were up in arms about her non-reaction. The following week, Gutmann spoke at a Penn solidarity march organized by faculty. “We are united against hatred, discrimination and intimidation,” she said. “We are united for our black sisters and brothers. We are united for our Muslim sisters and brothers.” That was as far as she went. If Gutmann could have Rip Van Winkled her way through the election, she probably would have. Instead, she requested that no Wharton professors speak to the press on Trump-related questions, which Politico described as a “gag order.” In the end, Gutmann played the diplomat. One possible reason is that taking any political stance would aggravate alumni, including Trump and his two daughters, both alums.

Her silence rankled many members of the Penn community. Others, including English professor Suvir Kaul, just shrug their shoulders. “Over the years, what’s emerged out of a series of developments is that Penn is just another college in the mold of other universities today, very wary of taking positions in the world,” Kaul says. Unlike Judith Rodin, he notes, Gutmann was “a well-known academic. She was a political-theory star. For a lot of us on the humanistic and progressive left of campus, there was a sense that Penn was going to be a torchbearer of progressive causes.” According to him, it hasn’t been.

This damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t is the quintessential illustration of Gutmann’s job and why her inaction can at times be an asset. “It’s way more important for Penn to be known as a leader, a job creator, an economic-development engine, a health-care researcher and innovator, than it is for Amy Gutmann to be recognized personally,” says David L. Cohen. “It’s not that she’s shy. I think she’s more content for her deeds and actions to be recognized through the university.”

With Gutmann, you have to read between the lines. This winter, news broke that after Trump’s inauguration, Joe Biden would be coming to Penn for his first post-government job. The announcement, after so many people had questioned Gutmann’s liberal bona fides, seemed like a subversive F-U to the new POTUS. “Sometimes we assume that in not being vocal against something, you must be for it,” says Camille Charles. “I understand why she can’t be more aggressive, but I think her silence [on Trump] speaks volumes.”

ON A LATE October morning 11 days before Trumpocalypse, Gutmann is emceeing the grand opening of the Pennovation Center from a tent just outside the brand-new business incubator carved from the brick skeleton of a century-old DuPont paint factory. It’s the shiniest symbol of her Penn Compact’s innovation agenda. In ways both spectacular and granular, Gutmann’s thumbprint is all over her campus. One of her advisers told me a story about the CVS on Walnut Street between 34th and 36th — a chain store on a block full of innocuous chain stores. Early in her tenure, Gutmann realized there was no pharmacy between Penn’s hospital and the Market-Frankford subway. The CVS appeared in short order.

Pennovation is something grander, and the unveiling appears to be as much about Philly as it is about Penn. Retaining tech talent, reversing the brain drain and developing a creative class have been talking points in this city for years, with many critics pointing to Penn for a failure to lead the way. Pennovation, according to one Penn administrator, will push the city one step further in its evolution from a “bronze” to a “brains” economy. And it aims to do that in an area few Philadelphians have ever been to, just off I-76 in a neighborhood known as Forgotten Bottom.

Buoyant as ever, Gutmann flies up the stairs to a makeshift stage and says, “Let’s hear it for Philadelphia!” She’s wearing a white blazer and black slacks and standing in front of a jumbo screen that duplicates her every exuberant gesture. When Gutmann gets excited — like right now — her hands gyrate and her eyebrows lurch, like she’s conducting an invisible orchestra. After she gushes about the future of “ro-butts” — on a scale of zero to Streisand, her New York accent is probably half a Bernie Sanders — a four-legged Minitaur automaton struts out from the Pennovation Center to the tent. It stops at Gutmann’s ankles, then hands her a pair of oversize scissors, eliciting a cascade of ooo-ing and ahhh-ing, as if nobody remembers that flying cars are 15 years past due.

Before Gutmann can cut the ribbon, a machine spouting red and blue smoke erupts. This being a blustery day, the smoke swirls through the tent rather than outward, causing coughs and bloodshot eyes. It’s all forgotten in a few minutes as tours of the Pennovation Center begin, but serves as a reminder that Gutmann, while highly orchestrated, is human.

Penn has been on a remarkable run in the past 12 years. Applications are up 113 percent, the endowment has doubled (to $10 billion-plus), and diversity has come to the forefront of the university. Gutmann has improved Penn’s brand globally, opening Penn Wharton China Center. She’s talking about a Penn Center for Global Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. Over the next five years, she wants to ramp up the gains Penn has made in every area of her Penn Compact. “There’s a lot more to do,” she says. “Standing still is not an option for me.”

The world is turning more partisan, and college campuses are becoming more reflective of it. The pressures on Gutmann will inevitably grow in her next chapter, whether from the latest Trump controversy or a new protest on Locust Walk. But her measured demeanor could be exactly what the school — and, really, the country — needs now more than ever.

Published as “Amy Gutmann Is Brilliant, Boring, Inclusive, Safe, Distant, Warm, and Able to Stand on Her Head” in the February 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.