Israel’s oldest English-language newspaper put it bluntly: “The president of one of the leading universities in the United States last week posed for photographs with a student dressed as a suicide bomber, The Jerusalem Post has learned.” The New York Post put it even more bluntly: “DITZY IVY PREXY’S H’WEEN BALL BOMBS.”
In the Middle East and on the East Coast, the verdict was the same: University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann ’71 committed a momentous PR blunder at her annual Halloween party last week when she agreed to have her picture taken alongside a senior with fake red explosives on his chest.
Both the president and the student, Saad Saadi, have apologized. But Gutmann, the daughter of a Jewish metallurgist who fled Nazi Germany in 1934, is drawing fire from pro-Israel leaders. The Zionist Organization of America wrote in a letter to the president: “Would you have done the same if he had come dressed as the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan?”
The implications of the Penn president’s faux pas may extend to Harvard—where Gutmann was an undergrad in South House, now Cabot, and where she earned her doctorate in 1976. Gutmann, who was a finalist for the presidency when Lawrence H. Summers was selected, is now seen as a potential successor to Derek C. Bok when he steps down from his position as interim president in July.
“In one sense this photograph shouldn’t be a serious issue because, surely, nobody thinks that Amy Gutmann sanctions suicide bombing,” Richard Bradley, a journalist who wrote a book about 21st-century Harvard, said in a phone interview.
But, Bradley went on, “it’s such an unfortunate picture that you could almost say they might not want to choose her just because they don’t want that picture floating around on the day that Harvard announces its new president...There is a lot of pressure involved and I think that’s the kind of situation when even something so small and fundamentally trivial as this might actually be like the feather that tips the scale.”
Gutmann declined an interview request through a spokesman, who provided a statement from the president.
“This year, one student holding a toy gun was photographed with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. As soon as I realized the full extent of his costume, I refused his request for additional photographs.” Gutmann’s statement said.
Saadi, who introduced himself as “the controversial suicide bomber” when returning a reporter’s phone call, said that he didn’t remember Gutmann appearing offended.
“I came up to her, asked for the photo, she joked about ‘How did you get past security?’, and I asked for another photo where I pointed my gun at her and she had her hands up—and she said, ‘No, that’s it,’” Saadi said in a phone interview. “The whole encounter with the picture was, like, a 15-second thing.”
Gutmann told The Daily Pennsylvanian in March that “I love what I’m doing at Penn and plan to be here for the foreseeable future.” But two people close to the Harvard Corporation, the top governing board with the final say over the next president, told The Crimson this semester that Gutmann was being considered for Harvard’s top post.
Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, the Kenan professor of government, said he hoped the photograph wouldn’t affect the presidential search committee’s view of Gutmann.
“I think it’s an embarrassing triviality,” Mansfield said. “This is a slip, that’s all, an insignificant slip.”
Saadi, for his part, said he doesn’t follow campus politics enough to judge Gutmann’s merits as president. As for her prospects for leading Harvard in the wake of the photo flap, he said, “I don’t know much about Harvard—I know there are scandals at Harvard, too.”
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at email@example.com.