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President Joe Biden once told friends that the “river of power … flows from the Ivy League.”

By cultivating a relationship with Penn — including a 30-year lineage of legacy alumni in his family — Biden has perhaps come to embody his own decades-old belief. 

In the run up to his election as president, Biden joined Penn’s faculty, launched a satellite think tank led by his eventual Secretary of State, and developed a close relationship with Amy Gutmann — the University’s longest-serving leader — whose presidency culminated in her appointment as United States ambassador to Germany.

Beyond his engagement with students and faculty on campus, Biden’s influence at Penn also appears to have extended into the University’s admissions processes. Text messages and emails examined by The Daily Pennsylvanian suggest that Biden consulted Penn administrators about his granddaughter’s application to the University several years ago. 

On at least two separate occasions in December 2018 and March 2019, Biden discussed the status of his granddaughter's application to Penn with then-President Gutmann and then-Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, according to text messages and emails viewed by the DP. Three sources said that the correspondence was from a copy of a laptop hard drive belonging to Biden’s son Hunter. 

Hunter is the father of Maisy Biden, a 2023 College graduate, and Finnegan Biden, a 2021 College graduate. The correspondence does not show that either received an inherent advantage in the admissions process.

The text messages and emails provide an intimate look into one facet of Biden’s relationship with Penn and its longtime former president, Gutmann — a relationship that Republican critics have cited to make unverified claims about impropriety and corruption. 

The conversations between Biden, Gutmann, and Furda about his grandchildren's applications have been reported previously in The Washington Free Beacon and The Wall Street Journal — but the DP examined additional evidence of private communications between administrators and Biden family members, friends, and confidants.

“Like countless parents, Mr. Biden has been an involved and supportive father in his children’s education,” Hunter Biden lawyer Abbe Lowell told the Journal in February 2023. “Because he loves his children and is fiercely protective of their well-being as private citizens and young adults, he is not going to indulge in invasive, partisan attempts by the media or others seeking to probe their private lives, especially in a time where families are being threatened and attacked.”

Elite admissions experts who spoke with the DP assessed the relationship between Biden and Penn as one high-profile example of the many channels that top universities keep open with well-connected individuals, creating a pattern of preferential treatment in the application process — including at the University, with the family of the United States president.

Penn declined a request for comment, while University admissions wrote, "We do not comment on applicants." Furda, Gutmann, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication.

Biden's 'great talk with Guttman' about one granddaughter's application

“Had great talk with Guttman,” Biden texted Hunter Biden on Dec. 14, 2018 — the day after early decision results were released for the Class of 2023. 

Biden went on to write that his granddaughter was “still in the game for regular acceptance …. But must do well in class this period .… It’s real.”

The text messages appear to show that Hunter Biden's youngest daughter applied to Penn through the Early Decision Program in fall 2018, but her application was ultimately considered during Regular Decision. 

“Bottom line is that Guttman made clear that in order for her to explain the 11th grade you had to show improvement in 12th,” Hunter wrote in a text message to his youngest daughter on Dec. 15. 

Hunter also suggested contact with Penn’s women’s lacrosse coach, according to the texts. A Penn Athletics spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

In March 2019, Biden again consulted a top Penn administrator about one of his granddaughter's applications. According to the text messages, Biden spoke with Furda on March 7, who appears to have told him that Regular Decision results for the Class of 2023 would be posted on March 29. 

“Spoke with Dean of Admission at PENN yesterday,” Biden texted Hunter. “Results posted Thursday 29th … Didn’t tell me but said I’d probably hear from President Guttman … May. Be wrong … But I took that as encouragement.”

Biden then pledged that he would call Hunter “immediately” if he heard from Gutmann before 1 p.m. on March 29. Biden's talk with Furda came just a week before Furda announced the University would consider revising its recruitment policies amid a nationwide bribery scandal involving admissions procedures at elite institutions.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do on anything,” Biden wrote to Hunter, the texts show.

A personal tour of Penn

The DP also viewed email correspondence which allegedly belongs to the same laptop hard drive. The emails appear to show that Hunter's middle daughter with Buhle received a personal tour of Penn from Furda in fall 2016 — months before she applied and was admitted to the Class of 2021. 

“Thank you so much for all of your help in answering my questions and showing me around campus!” the daughter wrote to Furda on Sept. 28, 2016. 

Penn was aware of one of Biden's grandchildren — also a lacrosse player — as early as her sophomore year of high school, according to one email exchange. The exchange suggests that Biden's daughter-in-law Kathleen Buhle and executive director at Penn Alumni Paula Clark met on on Feb. 5, 2015. In one email, Clark told Buhle that her daughter should attend Penn’s summer lacrosse camp.

“Bottom line,” Clark wrote, Buhle's daughter “is now on the radar here,” according to a Feb. 12, 2015 email to Buhle. Clark added, however, that a high school or club coach could contact a potential college coach and let them know if Buhle's daughter was playing somewhere that they could visit.

Two months later — on April 7, 2015 — Biden's family assistant Katie Dodge wrote in an email that she had spoken with Penn's lacrosse coach. 

Furda left Penn at the end of 2020 and now works at William Penn Charter School. In July of that year, Biden appointed Gutmann as U.S. ambassador to Germany, a position she has held since February 2022.

A 'normal' pathway for high-profile parents, grandparents, and their circles

Conservative outlets like the Free Beacon have cited Biden's apparent interactions with Gutmann and Furda to allege hypocrisy by a president who has indicated support for reconsidering preferential admissions policies, particularly after the overturn of affirmative action

To admissions experts, however, the Biden family’s apparent inside understanding of Penn’s application process represents a high-profile example of an ordinary — if not common — pathway that exists between well-connected individuals and elite universities. These experts described a pattern of universities seeking to build influence by courting well-connected parents and grandparents who sought to give their children and grandchildren the best shot possible at acceptance.

“I'm less inclined to blame a parent or a grandparent trying to get their kid into a school than I am to blame the school for allowing nepotism, favoritism, [and] ALDC preferences to exist in the first place,” admissions expert and legacy admissions opponent Evan Mandery said. “It just reflects terribly on Penn I think.”

Mandery described the “real scandal” as “the pathways that exist” in university admissions for well-connected individuals.

"This is all normal behavior," admissions expert and former Stanford admissions officer Jon Reider said. "And it's true at every private school. Every school I've ever dealt with has this kind of thing."

Still, Daniel Golden, the author of "The Price of Admission," called the personal conversations between Biden, Gutmann, and Furda "striking" — citing the University not necessarily having to take such meetings.

"I question whether Amy Gutmann or Eric Furda should meet with families of applicants during the process, unless they’re making the same opportunity available to the family of every applicant," Golden said.

Biden's perceived influence — either as the former vice president or as a confidant of the University — was also apparent to at least one friend of the Biden family. 1991 College graduate Eric Garrard, who was Beau Biden’s sophomore year roommate, emailed Hunter Biden on May 3, 2017 — appearing to ask if Biden could contact the University about his child's application.

"[My child is] waitlisted as a transfer to engineering school at Penn," Garrard wrote in an email. "I have already hesitated to reach out, Do you think your dad might reach out? ... Any help would be appreciated." 

Hunter replied: "I will, ask him buddy."

In an interview, Garrard said that this email correspondence sounded familiar to him. He said that he may have asked about getting a recommendation for his child, who was waitlisted from Penn at the time. Garrard did not recall such a recommendation ever happening — emphasizing that his child was ultimately not accepted to Penn.

"If a call did occur, it didn't help," Garrard added. "There was no assistance."  

Garrard also said that, while he has little contact with the family, he occasionally messaged Hunter to express support for him, his wife, and his children. He said he viewed his email to Hunter as one example of a parent trying to do whatever they could to ensure their child's acceptance — and did not actually think Biden had the ability to call Penn Admissions or the University president, even though he had just joined Penn's faculty.  

"My intent at that time was to simply kind of throw a kicker into his file," Garrard said. "[Biden] certainly didn't have that kind of pull at Penn at that point."

Penn's entanglement with Biden's political fortunes

Biden's involvement in Penn's admissions process is just one way in which the University has become indirectly entangled in his political fortunes, and his ties mirror other former presidents and vice presidents being attracted to academic institutions. Over the course of Biden's presidency, Republican politicians have repeatedly scrutinized Biden's Penn ties, from his appointment as a presidential professor of practice to the operations of the Penn Biden Center. 

Some in Congress have repeatedly inquired about foreign donations and visitors to the Penn Biden Center. One letter claimed that Penn has received "millions of dollars from anonymous Chinese sources" and that these donations tripled following the announcement of the formation of the Penn Biden Center in February 2017. However, the University denied any allegations of foreign influence.

“The Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity," a University spokesperson previously said in a statement to the DP. "The University has never solicited any gifts for the Center.”

The Chronicle for Higher Education reporter Karin Fischer, who covers international education, said in an interview that criticism of the Penn Biden Center is just one part of a larger focus of Republicans in Congress who became keen during Donald Trump's presidency to investigate universities and employ political rhetoric to allege ties to adversaries. Experts have previously said that Chinese donations to Penn are not atypical.

"What I do see is that the sort of policy responses, or called-for policy responses, especially on the right, I do not think are appropriately calibrated to the threat," Kyle Long, the former senior director of Northwestern University's Office of Organizational Strategy and Change, said in March 2023. "It's a little bit blown out of proportion."

At the December congressional hearing on antisemitism that sparked former Penn President Liz Magill's resignation, one congressman asked why Biden was paid almost $1 million by Penn. Magill noted Biden was a professor of practice for over two years and received a salary of $400,000, adding that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush held the same title.

“Biden had a wide variety of obligations” including seminars and interacting with students, Magill said.

Former Annenberg lecturer Howard Fineman, who has identified himself as a longtime friend of Biden, invited Biden to speak at a meeting of his class, "New Media and Politics in the Age of Trump," according to a Feb. 11, 2018 email. Fineman noted that Biden's own granddaughter was one of his 22 students — but told the DP that Biden avoided publicity when he visited and "didn't favor his granddaughter in any way."

At the conclusion of his visit to Fineman's class, while heading out of one of the Annenberg school basement's ampitheater-style classrooms, Biden turned around and made an unprompted remark to students, Fineman recalled.

"Look, you're all very lucky," Biden told them, according to Fineman's recollection. "You're going to an Ivy League school. You're going to do really well in life. You're probably going to make a lot of money. You're probably going to have a lot of clout. But no amount of money or clout or position is going to build a high enough wall for you to escape your responsibility to your society, [and] to your country."

Fineman said this remark reflected on Biden's upbringing, where he lacked money or "clout" but recognized he could not resist those circles as a politician and still had to fulfill his obligations to his country.

To those who knew Biden while he was on campus, allegations of impropriety or foreign influence during his work with the University are baseless. 

"The idea that there is something nefarious underlying [the Penn Biden Center] just doesn't make any any sense to me," Michael X. Delli Carpini, who was dean of the Annenberg School for Communication when Biden joined the school's faculty, told the DP in February 2023.

"Everything I know about how the Biden Center is funded, how Penn handles donations from individuals, who are often alumni from other countries, is that it's completely aboveboard and completely well handled," Carpini added.

Even still, some critics and reports have zeroed in on Hunter's relationship with Gutmann, particularly in light of her appointment as ambassador. In addition to speaking about her children, Buhle remained in contact with Clark throughout 2014 and 2015 to host a dinner with major Penn donors, parents of students, and key University figures on behalf of the Penn Parents council, according to the emails.

"I heard back from my colleague and President Amy Gutmann still wants to move forward with the dinner in Washington DC on Tuesday, April 21st," Clark wrote to Buhle on Feb. 12, 2015.

One attendee of the dinner — which was held at the famous Café Milano in Washington — said there was "nothing out of the ordinary," describing it as an opportunity for Gutmann to update the most engaged Penn alumni in Washington about ongoing University initiatives.

Four years after the dinner, one of Biden's grandchildren was at Penn, and on March 28, 2019, another was accepted when Penn released admissions decisions for the Class of 2023. One month later, Biden declared his candidacy for president.