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The hour-long question and answer session with President Amy Gutmann was moderated by Wharton School Dean Geoffrey Garrett.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Penn President Amy Gutmann delivered a lecture in Wharton's online coronavirus course on Wednesday, criticizing the United States' response to the pandemic and admitting that the University has not yet decided the fate of the fall semester.

In an hour-long question and answer session moderated by Wharton School Dean Geoffrey Garrett, Gutmann offered her perspective on how the United States can address the pandemic and discussed the process of making major decisions such as asking undergraduates to move off campus and shifting to remote learning. She said that the University has not yet decided when students will be allowed back at Penn.

"We will start up as soon as we can," Gutmann said. "I just don't know exactly when."

Penn will analyze the virus over the next few weeks before making a decision regarding the fall semester, Gutmann said, adding that the University is planning for every possibility. She acknowledged that online learning is "no substitute for the real thing," and that the Philadelphia economy depends on the University, which is the largest employer in the city.

"I know we'll unite again on Penn's campus and we'll refuel our local, national, and global economy by doing that," she said.

Students could submit questions for Gutmann prior to her lecture, and Garrett said the most asked-about topic was the University's plans for the fall semester.

Gutmann said once new cases of the virus were doubling every two to three days, she knew that the University had to make the "high-stakes decision" to evacuate campus. 

"Every extra day we stayed open would risk thousands of lives," she said.

Gutmann, who chaired the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues under former President Barack Obama during the Ebola crisis, also criticized the United States' response to the coronavirus.  

"There's a striking lack from our country of global leadership," Gutmann said. She outlined three steps the United States should take to limit the spread of the virus.

She called on the United States to increase funding for, and collaboration with, the World Health Organization to produce a streamlined global response to the outbreak. Last week, 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump announced he would halt funding for the WHO, accusing the organization of mishandling the crisis.

Gutmann also said Trump should appoint an experienced public health official to manage the United States' coronavirus response, citing Anthony Fauci as an optimal choice. She added that Ron Klain, an Obama appointee, successfully managed the Ebola crisis as the United States' Ebola response coordinator.

Gutmann called on the United States to strengthen the Public Health Service, which she said is "radically under-resourced, yet vitally important." She cited the need for mass testing for COVID-19 and contact-tracing capabilities.

Students said they appreciated Gutmann's talk, but wished she was more open about her decision making and the national controversy over funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“Ideally, I would have liked her to address the criticism that Penn and other Ivy League colleges have come under for receiving a government bailout,” College first-year James Waxley said, adding that student questions were filtered and made it difficult to have a back-and-forth dialogue.

Harvard University announced Wednesday that it will not accept funding allocated by the CARES Act after Trump criticized the school for being allocated federal money, citing Harvard's $41 billion endowment. Harvard was set to receive $8.6 million in relief aid. Yale University and Princeton University also announced Wednesday they would not accept CARES Act funding. 

Although Wharton MBA student Sam Rosen acknowledged that Gutmann has been put in a "difficult position" by the virus, he said he wishes she had been more candid about the University's decision-making process, including the uncertainties it faced and potential regrets it might have had.

College senior Serena Miniter said it was a “privilege” to hear Gutmann discuss her personal experience making decisions like shifting to remote learning and evacuating campus.

Wharton's coronavirus course, titled "Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty," is the first course in the nation to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. The half-credit course, taught by Wharton management professor Mauro Guillén, began its six-week run on March 25, and covers risk management and the global business implications of the pandemic.