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02-28-19-amy-gutmann
Although many complaints, gripes, and jokes on issues ranging from mental health to politics to college affordability have been aimed directly at outgoing President Amy Gutmann, a new president will not remedy many of these concerns. Credit: Sharon Lee

I first learned about Penn President Amy Gutmann during NSO — a small group of students were reading the Disorientation Guide and cracking jokes about what they would do if they had her salary. Even since then, it seems as though most comments students have made about President Gutmann are negative, from joking about the repetitiveness of her speeches and statements to more serious criticisms of her policies. Speculation, and subsequent excitement towards her departure, grew when rumors spread that Gutmann would join Joe Biden’s new administration. Although many complaints, gripes, and jokes on issues ranging from mental health to politics to college affordability have been aimed directly at outgoing President Gutmann, a new president will not remedy many of these concerns. 

Given the Board of Trustees justification of Gutmann’s compensation by her performance, the Board will likely search for a new president with similar qualities to Gutmann. Just like how Gutmann was chosen as president in 2004 for her experience as a “proven and skilled administrator”, it is almost certain that Penn’s next president will be someone with years of experience on a college campus. It is argued that politicians become more corrupt and ingrained in the political establishment the longer they spend in Washington, and I argue that even administrators with the best intentions eventually become influenced by the stagnant, performative approach preferred by those in power with the more experience they gain in university administrations. The Board of Trustees might tout our next president as being open to new ideas and student opinions, but they will ultimately select a president that represents and conforms to their vision and values. Thus, Penn’s next president will largely represent existing trends established at Penn, other universities, and larger trends in U.S. culture, the same way Gutmann has in her tenure as Penn President.

Let’s start with mental health, which many students have argued President Gutmann has not done nearly enough to address. Disapproval is often leveled at Gutmann’s failure to reform CAPS, refusal to address student questions at a mental health town hall, reluctance to provide days off, and mishandling of mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Gutmann’s shortcomings on this issue are part of a trend at Ivies and other universities across the country, where schools have not been successful at providing adequate resources to mitigate stress caused by an increasingly competitive culture

Satisfying student demands over political issues such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and fossil fuel divestment will still be difficult even after Gutmann’s departure. Gutmann’s shows of support towards demands of BLM protests have been criticised for being largely symbolic, but so have most major cities’ responses. Calls for Penn police reform and divestment of local police will likely also go unheard as students at other universities have demanded similar reforms and police departments across the country have fallen far short of protesters’ demands.

As for divestment from fossil fuels, Penn holds similar lackadaisical policies to other Ivies. It would be difficult for a new president to implement a more aggressive climate policy with the current Board of Trustees. Scott Bok, the current chair, is CEO of Greenhill and Co., which has heavy ties to the oil and gas industry. With this strong industry connection at such an influential position in Penn’s administration, Penn will not cave to student’s demands on climate change anytime soon.

Finally, Gutmann’s salary, which is probably the most lambasted aspect of her presidency, and was my introduction to our president, is also a minor transgression in what is a much larger issue. Outrage over Gutmann’s salary was rekindled when she refused to take a pay cut at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year while many other university presidents did. Most complaints about Gutmann’s salary seem to not be based on her individual salary, but the bloat of administrative costs that have been a trend at universities for decades now, contributing to the increasingly unaffordable cost of college. Although a new president will likely have a lower starting salary than Gutmann, this will marginally affect Penn’s overall administrative payroll. A new president will likely not make any radical changes to the structure of our administration and we will certainly see no benefits in our tuition.

I am not defending these shortcomings of President Gutmann’s tenure, but I am stating they are part of systemic issues much larger than Gutmann. The new president that will be selected will likely come from the same vein as Gutmann: an established administrator who has spent years at Penn’s or other college’s administrations, who will likely echo the same sentiments as Gutmann. The truth is, Gutmann’s tenure has largely reflected the existing culture and trends in Penn’s administration, the Ivy League, and American culture. Thus, don’t expect any drastic changes when a new president is selected; we as the Penn community will still have to to fight arduous battles to get any positive change we want from the administration.

MATTHEW LIU is a College rising junior from Allentown, PA studying biochemistry, chemistry, and neurobiology. His email is liumatt@sas.upenn.edu.

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