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

Gutmann was puzzled by the photos around her house when she was growing up. Although Gutmann's father spoke with a German accent, the photos of him were taken in India. As she grew older, her father's odyssey gradually became clear. Fifteen years before she was born, her father had fled Nazi Germany only to be denied asylum in the United States.

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.