Gutmann: Study of Ethics Drives Princeton Professor's Career
One morning, Princeton's Dean of the Faculty, Amy Gutmann '71, came into her morning staff meeting tired and sick. She opened the meeting by apologizing to her staff for moving so slowly.
"Amy, now you're moving at normal-person speed," laughed Associate Dean of the Faculty Katherine T. Rohrer.
Four years later, the woman known for living her life at double speed is among the finalists for Harvard's 27th presidency. And her friends and colleagues say Gutmann's quick mind may be the right one to tackle the host of issues facing Harvard.
"It's exactly what we need to lead the greatest university in the world into the 21st century," says Harvard Law School (HLS) professor David B. Wilkins.
Gutmann, the Rockefeller University professor of politics at Princeton and the founding director of the University Center for Human Values, has spent her life debating issues about democracy, education, ethics and the value of human life.
She declined comment for this article.
The basis for her deep interest in "social justice," as her friends describe it, comes from her time growing up in a family formed from the ashes of the Holocaust and her time at Radcliffe College during one of the most tumultuous eras the University had ever seen.
Home Sweet Home
Eventually, he settled in India, where he lived for over a decade. On vacation to the United States, he attended a benefit at a Manhattan hotel, where he met Gutmann's mother. Weeks later, they were married. They settled in Monroe, N.Y., a small town about an hour north of New York City.
Amy--their only child--was born a year later.
Growing up, Gutmann realized that America--the land of opportunity--had turned her father away in his neediest hour. Questions about human rights would drive much of Gutmann's professional life in the coming decades.
"What gives value to our life? What makes life meaningful?" she asked during a speech last year. "Are there any good answers to these questions? That's always fascinated me--for as long as I have memories that have to do with issues of good and evil."
Friends say she studied hard from an early age. Before graduating from Monroe-Woodbury Central High School, Gutmann finished first in New York on the math Regents exam, a mandatory statewide test of academic competence. In the spring of 1967, Gutmann was admitted to Radcliffe.
The tensions that were building between students and administrators would eventually lead to the 1969 University Hall takeover. The Vietnam War was tearing a rift through the center of Harvard and the nation as a whole.
All female students still lived in the Radcliffe Quad--it wasn't until Gutmann's junior year that women were lotteried into the River Houses. Milk and cookies were served every night at 10 p.m. and Mary Bunting, then-president of Radcliffe, wandered through Hilles Library chatting with students.
One of Gutmann's college roommates, Peggy Goldman '71, remembers their dorm, Bertram Hall (now part of Cabot House), as a "hodge-podge" of students, mostly minorities with some foreign students.
"We were definitely not of the social establishment," Goldman remembers.
The Amy Gutmann who arrived at Radcliffe was not the same one who graduated four years later, friends recall.
"Amy was always a very quiet person, very shy, and on the outside a little ill at ease with everything going on then," Goldman recalls. "However, if you delved beneath the surface, she had an iron-clad will."
In fact, many of her friends remember her drive and pizzazz. One long-time friend, Judith E. Fradkin '71, recalls that Gutmann was "really transformed by Harvard."
"She was a person who was really involved in finding herself and figuring out her philosophy of life," Fradkin says. "She talked a lot, and listened a lot. She was very involved in other people. All the kinds of social justice issues were very important to her even back then."
Although she participated in few extracurricular activities, Gutmann and her friends did join several organizations in Phillips Brooks House.
The big story, of course, was the personal and academic fragmentation of the campus. Gutmann watched the tensions and conflicts at Harvard with great interest--and always from the sidelines, her friends recall. She pondered the issues, listening carefully to the debates and attending the mass meetings held at the Harvard Stadium.
"She was never deterred from her purpose, and that was to get a good education.... I respected her for that," Goldman says. "Amy was never very outspoken--she stayed very quiet. However, whenever you asked her about something, she had a thoughtful opinion. She just never broadcast that."
Soon after arriving--and partly in response to the turmoil around her--Gutmann became interested in philosophy and switched her concentration from math to social studies--the subject that would dominate her life and work for three decades. She threw herself into her new subject, always studying and working.
"She was never a flashy student, she was always industrious and always came through," Goldman says.
In the spring of 1971, Gutmann graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe and embarked for England as a Marshall Scholar.
Life After Radcliffe
She immediately took a teaching job at Princeton, where she began as an assistant professor, eventually gaining tenure a decade later in 1981. That same year, she published Democratic Education, a work that many of her colleagues single out as her most important contribution to academia.
Frederick Schauer, Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), describes the book as a deeply "philosophical work about education, opening up the question of education as a central topic of philosophy and democracy."
In it, she describes who should control education in a democracy, and wrestles with the issues from book burning to teachers' unions to public support for private schools and affirmative action in college admissions. At the time, The New York Times hailed the book for its "specifically political theory of education."
"She is a superb and justifiable prominent scholar," Schauer says.
In 1990, Gutmann approached Princeton President Howard T. Shapiro with a proposal for a ground-breaking University Center for Human Values. Founded with a grant from Laurence E. Rockefeller, the center was designed to study broad interdisciplinary ideas of ethics, human rights and life.
''There's no obvious place in any single department to look at how specialized knowledge fits into the broader spectrum of the meaning and value of human life and human society,'' Gutmann said at the time.
The center has grown quickly: it now is home to five full-time professors and 24 associate professors, and has expanded its course offerings from one freshman seminar in 1990 to a dozen classes this year.
Colleagues hail it as one of the most successful ethics centers in the country, and say that a decade of overseeing its operation has given Gutmann valuable administrative experience.
"She's been running a major research facility for almost a decade," says Wilkins, who calls Gutmann a mentor and role model for his own ethics work at HLS. "She's someone with tremendous ideas about higher education."
Wilkins says the center's interdisciplinary approach has given Gutmann the ability "to think broadly about the mission of the university."
"She's constantly thinking and looking at contemporary problems and how to bring the university to bear on those issues," he says.
A Dean to Call Her Own
As dean of the faculty, Princeton's third-highest academic administrator, she oversaw "cradle-to-grave" faculty and professional staff decisions, says Rohrer, including authorizations of faculty searches and the selection of department chairs, hiring, setting of salaries, tenure and promotion decisions, sabbaticals and faculty discipline.
Gutmann was highly regarded as dean, especially for her "balanced and broad view of issues facing higher education," Rohrer says.
"She was always in control. In two years, she accomplished what would normally take someone five years," Rohrer adds.
Gutmann stepped down in 1997, saying, "What I did not foresee is how much I would miss scholarship and teaching. I now know more vividly than before what it means to have a calling and what happens when one turns aside from it."
Princeton colleagues say her tenure as dean helped energize the campus with her ideas about higher education. During her time, she tried to diversify the faculty, recruited more women in the faculty and helped reform the tenure process.
Shapiro cited her for her "exceptional leadership." Since 1997, she has served as special assistant to Shapiro for academic issues.
Colleagues say the past three years have been the "peak" of Gutmann's professional achievement, and that despite her earlier decision to leave administration, she's ready for another try.
In addition to the Harvard possibility, she is also considered a likely contender at Princeton.
She is currently working on a new book at Stanford University.
Gutmann has kept close ties to her alma mater. She served as a visiting professor at the Kennedy School in the late 1980s, and currently sits on the KSG's advisory board.
She also joins her classmates of 1971 for bi-monthly dinners in New York, and has watched the evolution of Radcliffe closely over the past decade, her friends say.
"She'd bring a deep understanding of the tradition and history of Harvard," Wilkins says.
Harvard Alford Professor of Philosophy Thomas M. Scanlon Jr.--who used to teach at Princeton--says she's a proven fund-raiser, and says he thinks it would be a "big sacrifice" for her to take either presidency because she loves teaching so much.
Friends describe her as a very genuine person who connects well with people, who loves to laugh and be outdoors and enjoys fine food and wine.
"Amy isn't a person who does things because of issues of prestige," says Felice J. Perlman '71, a college roommate. "She doesn't do things for ambition or fame. She does things because she's interested in what she does."
"Amy has always been a very balanced person, interested in many different viewpoints," Perlman says. "That's one of the reasons she'd make a good administrator. She's an excellent listener."
"She can do anything she wants to do," Rohrer says. "This is not a person with limitations."
--Staff Writer Joshua E. Gewolb contributed to the reporting of this story.
--Staff Writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.