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04-11-19-amy-gutmann-zach-sheldon
After President Biden nominated Penn President Amy Gutmann to become the next ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, Penn experts weighed in, supporting her because of her leadership record at Penn and political science background. Credit: Zach Sheldon

After President Amy Gutmann's nomination to the role of next United States ambassador to Germany, Penn experts weighed in, supporting her because of her leadership record at Penn and political science background.

President Joe Biden officially announced Gutmann's nomination in a press release on July 2, confirming reports from earlier in the week that she had been nominated for the ambassadorship and would be leaving the University. If Gutmann is approved by the U.S. Senate and German president, she will become the first female ambassador to Germany.

Penn political science experts said that Gutmann’s experience as Penn’s president could aid her in the role of ambassador to Germany, citing her experience in administrative positions, bureaucratic maneuvering, and experience managing a large University system and community. Experts also pointed out the historical precedent of college presidents who served as previous ambassadors to other nations.

Gutmann is not the first college president to have been nominated to the position of ambassador to Germany. The third President of Cornell University Jacob G. Schurman acted as an ambassador to Germany from 1925 to 1930. Similarly, 23rd President of Harvard University James B. Conant served as the first Ambassador to West Germany from 1955 to 1957.

Mitchell Orenstein, Russian and East European Studies professor, said that he did not find Gutmann’s appointment to be surprising considering Germany’s historical emphasis on education.

“Germany is a country which pretty much invented the modern university. A lot of the U.S. universities actually are based on the German model. It's a country that probably respects academic achievement,” he said.

Still, Biden's choice to appoint Gutmann has drawn some criticism from experts. Many have questioned the Biden administration’s motives, citing his close relationship to the University, as well as Gutmann's experience in such a position. Biden has held the position of honorary “Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor” at Penn since 2017. Biden also established the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C.

Brian Rosenwald, a 2006 College graduate, Senior Scholar in Residence at Penn, and political scientist, said he believes that anyone who has concerns regarding Gutmann's preparedness for the position are misguided.

"Anybody who says that she's not qualified is either (A) trying to create political headaches for the administration, or (B) is probably misogynistic," he said. "Realistically, it's not factoring in that you're talking about a tremendously accomplished woman who has really distinguished herself over decades, as first a political philosopher, and then a university president."

With multiple degrees in political science under her belt, as well as over 17 years as Penn's president, experts reassure that Gutmann is more than qualified for the position she was nominated for.

In 1972, Gutmann earned a master’s degree in political science from the London School of Economics, and in 1976, she received a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard. Gutmann worked at Princeton University as a professor of politics and provost from 1976 to 2004 — when she joined the Penn administration as president. Then-President Barack Obama also nominated Gutmann as chair to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in 2009.

In addition to her background in political science, Penn professors pointed towards her experience as the University president as being useful if she were to be the ambassador to Germany.

“The politics of how universities operate really are not that different from broader politics and government either. In universities, you're dealing with many stakeholders, you know, many political issues,” Orenstein said. “It's a very political job that involves a lot of executive decision making. So I think it does set you up pretty well to manage relationships like the one between the U.S. and Germany.”

Rosenwald also pointed to Gutmann and Biden's relationship as a likely important point for him in selecting her for the ambassadorship.

"With Joe Biden's connections to Penn — which are pretty significant — he knows Amy Gutmann. So he has some sense of her, and that's been a really key trait for him in selecting people for important roles. Does he know them? Does he trust them?" Rosenwald said. "I'm sure that they've had, you know, private conversations, and they have a relationship that he can build upon and that he trusts her."

Experts said that, if confirmed, Gutmann would have the important task of mending the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Germany as ambassador.

Germanic Languages and Literatures professor Simon Richter said that he was excited about Gutmann’s nomination because it represents a chance for repairing the trust between the U.S. and Germany after former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell’s controversial tenure during the Trump administration.

“The previous administration and the previous Ambassador Richard Grenell did a lot of damage to the relationship with Germany,” he said. “I think that President Gutmann — personally and on behalf of the United States — has a great opportunity to mend the relationship and to do so on the basis of a sort of respectful and intelligent conversation. I think people in Germany will be very, very grateful for that.”

In addition to smoothing tensions left by the previous administration, Richter said Gutmann will have an opportunity to gain a plethora of knowledge in her new role, including on Germany’s action on climate change. Richter, who is one of the faculty organizers of Climate Week at Penn, said that he is hopeful that the U.S. can follow in Germany’s steps on addressing climate change.

“I think she will discover that the German people and the German government are far ahead of the United States on transitioning to renewable energy,” Richter said.

The Biden administration aims to reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 52 percent by the year 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to a statement from the White House. Germany set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by the year 2045, reflecting "rising public demand for green policies," Climate Home News reported.

In the Penn Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, the University committed to reaching 100% carbon neutrality by the year 2042. By contrast, the Free University of Berlin announced that it aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2025.

Before Gutmann begins her new role, she must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Gutmann wrote in an email to the Penn community on July 2 that she plans to continue serving as president of Penn until the end of her term on June 30, 2022, or whenever she is confirmed by the Senate, which may expedite her departure.

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