President Biden’s election of University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann to be the United States Ambassador to Germany is generating new controversy, and not just because of quid pro quo concerns about her decision to pay Biden $ 911,000 in salary for an ambiguous teaching position at the prestigious university.
Gutmann is the second-highest-paid Ivy League president, receiving roughly $ 3.9 million in total compensation in 2020, according to the university’s latest publicly available 990 tax forms. Only Lee Bollinger of Columbia University does more: allegedly $ 4.6 million in 2018 – while all other Ivy League presidents earn less than $ 2 million annually, according to the latest figures available.
Ethical watchdogs have attacked the nomination for taking the pay-to-play practice of electing ambassadors to new levels.
New presidents typically reward at least a handful of big donors and campaign bundlers with such good jobs, even if they lack the foreign policy credentials to become the top American diplomat in those countries. In some particularly embarrassing cases, Ambassador selections don’t even know the basics about the nations in which they were chosen to serve.
In this case, Biden chose Gutmann, a long-time and highly respected university president, but with little or no foreign policy experience, to represent the US with one of our closest allies. And the nomination comes after Gutmann was personally responsible for directing nearly $ 1 million in college funding to Biden in the two and a half years before he launched his presidential career.
It is not unusual for universities to pay former presidents, secretaries of state and other top government officials six-figure fees for their speeches. But the watchdogs argue that the salary amount for a professorship in which Biden primarily delivered speeches without teaching a class raises ethics flags, especially considering the strong possibility that Biden is running for president at the time the payments were made. .
“I don’t care so much about the payments to a president who is fired. [Bill] Clinton would not run again. President Obama, in the same way, ”John Pudner, CEO of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative nonprofit organization, said in an interview. “But a lot of people expected Joe Biden to run for president again, and that’s what changes him for me.”
Pudner and other watchdogs also argue that Gutmann’s nearly $ 4 million salary goes against the Democrats’ push to make college more affordable and Biden’s efforts to eliminate billions in student loan debt.
“Overpaying administrators and some professors increases academic compensation nationwide, driving the cost of college to astronomical levels,” Pudner and Richard Painter wrote on a Monday. Newsweek op-ed. “Democrats talk about making college affordable and canceling student debt, but people like Amy Gutmann are doing everything they can to increase the cost of higher education.”
Painter is a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush’s chief ethics attorney from 2005 to 2007 before becoming one of Donald Trump’s leading critics.
Last year, Gutmann also drew criticism for refusing to emulate the decisions of the presidents of five of the nation’s top universities – Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell and Stanford – to accept a COVID-related pay cut of 20% or more for the academic year. .
“Every dollar of these recaptured funds will be used to help meet the financial aid needs of our undergraduate, graduate or professional students,” Cornell Chancellor Michael Kotlikoff wrote in an email to students last year.
Rather than follow suit, Gutmann maintained his salary level as Penn instituted a hiring freeze and prevented employees making more than $ 70,000, including officers, deans and vice presidents, from receiving an annual salary increase or stipend for the year. fiscal 2021.
University spokesman Stephen MacCarthy referred all questions about Gutmann’s ambassador nomination to the White House while defending Penn’s decision to pay Biden $ 911,000 for the chair. The longtime former vice president and senator served as Benjamin Franklin’s presidential practice teacher, a position that did not require him to teach a class. Gutmann helped recruit Biden, according to the former Pennsylvania governor. Ed Rendell.
The appointment sparked criticism in the election campaign last year after Biden claimed he became a “teacher” after his term as vice president ended.
“Instead of taking a job on Wall Street, I became a teacher, I became a teacher,” he said.
The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, later cleared up that Biden never taught a regular class, but spoke at the university on at least five occasions. One of the visits included a dialogue with former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and on another he appeared with Gutmann to discuss international relations and cancer research.
MacCarthy characterized Biden’s affiliation with the university as “extraordinarily successful.”
“As our Presiding Professor of Practice Benjamin Franklin, he helped expand Penn’s global reach while sharing his wisdom and insights with thousands of Penn students through seminars, talks and classroom visits,” he said.
Biden brought “prominent figures from the world” to the Penn campus for “forums and conferences to discuss and debate critically important issues such as immigration, climate change, Brexit, national defense and global diplomacy,” he added.
MacCarthy did not respond to RCP’s questions about Gutmann’s salary and whether it undermines Biden’s college affordability goals. It also did not respond to a question about whether the university had hired an outside compensation expert to make sure its packages are comparable to those of senior officials at other Ivy League universities.
A White House spokesman argued that Gutmann’s qualifications and reputation speak for themselves.
“President Biden is delighted to have nominated her for this important position,” he said. “If confirmed, we hope Gutmann will represent the Biden-Harris administration and the United States with such an important ally in Germany.”
Gutmann is the daughter of a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and has long advocated making college more affordable. He often touts his school’s undergraduate financial aid grant policy as the largest in the country with more than $ 1.4 billion disbursed since 2008. A Penn biography says it has raised more than $ 9 billion for college since 2004.
In 2009, President Obama appointed her chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues during the Zika and Ebola health crises. During Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, her name came up as a possible choice for secretary of education – Cabinet election speculation that circulated again last year after Biden won the White House.
Biden has a long history with the university and with Gutmann. His late son Beau, daughter Ashley, and granddaughter Naomi are all Penn graduates. Biden himself received an honorary degree from the university in 2013. In addition to hiring Biden to the professorship, Gutmann created the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, DC, in early 2018.
Coupled with Gutmann’s decision to pay Biden $ 911,000, his large salary could become an issue during his upcoming Senate confirmation process.
Pudner, along with Take Back Our Republic Chairman and Board Chairman Francis Johnson, are asking Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to open an investigation into whether Penn is violating its charitable tax status by paying executive compensation. excessive to Gutmann and other senior university officials.
“Executive compensation in nonprofit organizations is a matter subject to investigation and possible litigation by the state attorney general,” the couple wrote to Shapiro. “Unlike a for-profit corporation, there are no shareholders who act as a controller of the transactions on their own account. That’s the attorney general’s job. “
Shapiro is a longtime Democrat and is unlikely to act on that request. He previously served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the seat to be vacated by retired Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
But salary issues could tangle Gutmann’s Senate confirmation process, although Republicans cannot block the nomination if all Democrats support it.
In the letter to Shapiro, Johnson and Pudner also objected to the compensation the university awarded Biden, raising the possibility that it had been paid, at least in part, through foreign donations to the university. Last year a Philadelphia Inquirer Report found that Penn received at least $ 258 million in foreign money from 2013 to mid-2019, with the most funding, $ 68 million, coming from Chinese entities and another $ 2.75 million from the Saudi Ministry of Defense and others. Saudi entities.
In 2015, the university established the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing, which the university calls “a major hub through which Penn students and faculty can further grow exchanges with China.”
A university Web page A visit by Gutmann to the center and the “one night in Beijing” event that he led stand out.
“If there were some quid pro quo arrangement, for example, a promise to [Gutmann] of an appointment similar to the position of ambassador for which she has now been nominated, that would also be a violation of the law on non-profit organizations, “argue Johnson and Pudner in their letter.
“If Penn was used as a conduit to pass money from foreign donors to a presidential candidate, that would also be of great concern,” they noted. “… We expect all non-profit organizations, regardless of the political ideology or political affiliation of their leaders, to be accountable to the attorney general of the states where they organize, do business, and raise funds.”
A separate conservative group, the National Legal and Policy Center, presented last year a complaint with the Department of Education, calling for a full investigation into whether Penn directed any of the Chinese funds to the Biden Center. The complaint came after the DOE launched investigations against Harvard and Yale for failing to report foreign donations.
MacCarthy at the time said Penn had “never requested any gifts for the Penn Biden Center,” but did not say whether the university directed any of the Chinese funds to the center.