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Amy Gutmann, Up Close

September 12, 2013 By:
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Amy Gutmann has a veritable laundry list of achievements she could talk about, including: spearheading Making History, a $3.5 billion fundraising effort that has become the new standard for funding college endowments; authoring/co-authoring 16 books, including 2012’s The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (with Dennis Thompson); and chairing the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues since President Barack Obama appointed her to the post in 2009. Yet, even the briefest conversation with the 63-year-old, who has served as the eighth president of Penn since 2004, seems to quickly turn to her students. Her hopes and expectations for them, her pride in their growth and accomplishments — these were just a few of the things on her mind during an email interview with Inside, which is excerpted here. To read the full transcript, go to www.jewishexponent.com/inside-magazine-fall-2013.

What is the one thing you wish every prospective Penn parent knew going into the process?

I wish that parents would realize that everything is going to be OK. Their children are probably anxious enough about the process as it is — they should help decrease the anxiety of their children, or at least not increase it. As partial as I am to Penn, I want parents to recognize that there isn’t just one uniquely best school for highly talented college students.

You were instrumental in bringing the Shoah Foundation archives to Penn; how has its presence made a difference both academically and for the greater Philadelphia community?

There is no social responsibility that I feel more deeply than keeping alive the memory of those who perished and those who survived the Holocaust. I would not be here today if it were not for my father’s courage and farsightedness in getting his family out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

I am proud that in 2012, we were able to bring the Shoah archives to Penn’s campus.  When Steven Spielberg asked me in 2011 if I would be willing to bring the Shoah archives to Penn, my response was immediate and positive. These tremendous archives are free, accessible and open to the public. I encourage everyone to explore them at Penn’s library, if you haven’t already done so.

What are the best ways to balance students’ needs to maintain and/or strengthen Jewish identity with their need to become their own person and part of the Penn community at large?

Penn is very special among Ivy League schools in that we were born non-sectarian. We welcome the widest range of identities and groups on campus. When I’m asked about the role of being Jewish in university life, I often say that doing good in the world and being proud of who we are — metaphorically speaking, bringing our brains and our hearts into inspiring harmony — is an important part of being Jewish. It’s the concept of tikkun olam, which is a worthy personal challenge. All of our lives are made richer — and each of us larger — than we can possibly be alone when we make ourselves engaged and productive parts of larger communities.

Do you ever eat dining hall food?

Absolutely. I often crave the sushi selection at Houston Hall.

After so many convocations and commencements, how do you keep coming up with something new to say? Is there one core idea you try to communicate from year to year?

Whatever my specific theme for convocation or commencement, I cannot help but express my pride at being part of this incredible Penn community. My challenge then is to vividly convey — with real stories that have deeply touched me — one or more of the major aspirations and achievements that makes such pride so well-founded. These are often variations on the sage adage, “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.” This is the single most important message: the high expectations we have for ourselves and everyone with the privilege of a Penn education.

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