In the next few days, the U.S. Senate is set to approve the nomination of former University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann as ambassador to Germany. It is the latest manifestation of President Joe Biden’s cozy relationship with the Ivy League school, and one that should raise ethical questions that Gutmann has yet to have to answer.
After leaving office as vice president in January 2017, Biden embarked on the traditional course of major politicians from both parties: getting paid. Not two weeks after Biden’s term ended, Gutmann announced that Biden had been named the “Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor” at Penn, a new position created for the ex-veep. The job entailed leading the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, which Gutmann’s announcement described as “a new center focused principally on diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security.”
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Biden’s job duties were frustratingly vague. He referred to himself as a “professor,” but from the beginning, his spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 that “his time will likely amount to about one day a week at each school with some ebb and flow depending on the work.” By “each school,” Bedingfield meant that he would spend one day each week at Penn and one at the University of Delaware, the location of the longtime Delaware Senator’s other sinecure.
A vaguely defined role
That ebb and flow, Bedingfield added, would not include actually teaching classes. Biden would not be the first Ivy League prof to avoid sullying his hands with actual students, but he does not appear to have conducted any research, either. What was crystal clear was the salary: in a job the Inquirer’s Jonathan Tamaris described as “a vaguely defined role that involved no regular classes and around a dozen public appearances on campus, mostly in big, ticketed events,” Biden raked in $371,159 in 2017, $405,368 in 2018, and $135,116 in 2019.
After starting his campaign for president, Biden took an unpaid leave of absence beginning in April 2019, before finally resigning in 2021 as he took office. In total, he collected $911,643 from Penn in just over two years — nearly a million dollars for a job that barely required him to show up.
The job at the University of Delaware, on the other hand, does not appear to have paid Biden anything. When that job was announced, Margie Fishman of the Wilmington News-Journal reported that “UD spokeswoman Andrea Boyle said no state funds would be used for the Biden Institute and that UD is ‘exploring fundraising opportunities and activities’ to pay for it. [Boyle] declined to elaborate.”
While Penn appears to have received next to nothing for its nearly seven-figure expenditure, Gutmann stands to come out ahead. But her nomination to the prestigious diplomatic post has raised some concerns among Senate Republicans. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) authored a letter to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations questioning the appointment and the appearance of a quid pro quo.
Rubio, Johnson and Cruz also questioned whether Biden’s salary was paid by the infusion of foreign cash Penn has received in recent years — estimated at $258 million from 2013 to 2019 — most of which came from entities in Communist China.
Ambassadorships are often given to big donors, but usually those donors contribute their own money, not that of their institutions — and it usually goes to the campaign, not into the candidate’s pocket.