You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Former University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, a light-skinned blonde woman, speaking at commencement in 2015.

Former University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, speaking at commencement in 2015, received almost $23 million upon leaving her job in 2021.

Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage/Getty Images

In 2006, University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann was photographed at a Halloween party standing next to a student dressed as a suicide bomber. The photo went viral, and Gutmann—who had become president two years earlier—was forced to issue an apology. That wasn’t enough for her critics, who filled up the blogosphere with demands that Gutmann resign. “What a despicable picture!” one angry post declared. “The trustees should start looking for a new president.”

They didn’t, of course. Gutmann easily weathered that storm and continued in her role until last year, when President Biden appointed her ambassador to Germany. And last week, we learned that Penn gave her almost $23 million—yes, you read that right—in 2021. Twenty million of that was deferred compensation, which Gutmann built up during her 18 years on the job.

And the response from the Penn community? Meh.

Think about that. A tasteless photograph creates an internet sensation, but a gigantic payout barely registers on the outrage meter. Aside from a small handful of critics on Twitter, nobody seemed to care about her compensation package.

Ditto for the $911,000 that Penn gave Joe Biden for doing next to nothing as our first Benjamin Franklin Presidential Professor of Practice, before he was elected U.S. president. My strong guess is that most of my colleagues found that distasteful, just like they winced at Gutmann’s $23 million. But, for the most part, they kept their mouths shut.

Why? In the case of Biden, our overwhelmingly Democratic community might have been reluctant to give any ammunition to his GOP enemies. But I think the larger problem is simpler: we’ve become cynics, so weary with the world that we accept it as it is.

Of course universities award obscenely huge salaries to their presidents. Of course they give extravagant sinecures to politicians. That’s just the way things work. All of us are looking to the main chance, just like Amy Gutmann and Joe Biden. They’re just better at it.

And Gutmann is hardly alone in raking in big bucks as a university president. Savannah College of Art and Design president Paula S. Wallace received more than $5 million in 2019, making her the highest-paid private college president. Next came Thomas Jefferson University CEO Stephen K. Klasko, at $4.4 million. Gutmann’s salary of $3.2 million put her a mere fifth on the list.

The rationale for these salaries is the same one used to defend enormous CEO packages in the private sector: these people bring in much more revenue than we pay them. Amy Gutmann raised more than $10 billion for Penn during her presidency, when the university’s endowment quintupled from $4.1 billion to $20.5 billion.

But a 2019 study of 119 universities over a seven-year period found no correlation—none—between presidents’ salaries and the private contributions they brought in. Of course, presidents do much more than simply raise funds for their institutions. But we shouldn’t pretend that paying them more money will yield more donations when the data tells us otherwise.

For the record, I think Amy Gutmann was an excellent university president. Penn grew into a more dynamic, energetic and interesting place under her leadership. The heart of the university is the student body, and under Gutmann it became more diverse and talented. Ditto for the faculty, if I may say so myself. (I came to Penn in 2016.)

So why bite the hand that feeds me? The question highlights how cynical we have become. It implies that we all need to go along to get along. Wear the swag, sing the alma mater, smile at graduation. Then cash your own check and move on.

Our students are watching, and they can see through us. We tell them to pursue their dreams and passions, not simply the shiny object (tech, finance, management consulting) that will pay them the most. Then we give a queen’s ransom to our own president, and almost nobody raises an eyebrow. Message: she’s just doing what everyone else does. And so will you.

We’re talking about a moment when millions of American students have gone into debt to obtain a college degree, and thousands of faculty members are adjuncts who can barely scrape by. No wonder so many people have become skeptical of our universities! They can see through us, too.

And don’t get me started about “equity,” which universities like Penn love to trumpet as their core value. An institution that gives its already-wealthy leader $23 million does not value equity. Period.

There’s nothing inconsistent about saying that Amy Gutmann was a great university president and that we should all be ashamed that we paid her so much. I think Joe Biden has been an excellent U.S. president, too, but I still don’t think we should have given him nearly a million dollars for visiting campus about a dozen times.

Let me be clear: university presidents have incredibly demanding jobs, and of course they should be richly compensated for them. But there’s rich, and then there’s obscene. Nobody at a university needs or deserves as much as Gutmann received. Nobody.

Amy Gutmann isn’t just an outstanding academic leader; she’s one of the foremost moral philosophers of the past half century. So let’s try a little philosophy experiment: raise your hand if you can look at your students—or at your own children—and tell them that our system for compensating university presidents is righteous, virtuous and just, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward giving Amy Gutmann $23 million.

No takers? I didn’t think so. We’re just afraid to say so. And that might be the most cynical thing of all.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which was recently released in a 20th-anniversary edition by the University of Chicago Press.

Next Story

More from Views