Q&A with Wendy White

From her light-filled office atop 113 S. 36th St., Wendy White jokes about the stresses of being a lawyer. It’s different day-to-day and week-to-week, she says, and a particularly difficult issue she’s working on in the morning often turns into a completely different obstacle by lunchtime.

But White, senior vice president and general counsel for the University, is more than equipped to deal with the stress. The Penn Law alumna spent more than 25 years in Washington, D.C. as a litigator, and from 1996-1997 she served as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton.

“Working in the White House is one day of crisis management after the next,” White says. “Every single day turned out to be some kind of crisis, especially in the Clinton administration. I was hired to work on some of the difficult issues that were going on at the time. I think it really did change my career because that view of the world was incredibly intense—fun and interesting, but difficult—and really was the best preparation for this job you could imagine.”

White says her time in the White House not only prepared her for a position at Penn—she says it’s the reason she landed the job in the first place.

“One of my colleagues in the White House’s Counsel Office became the general counsel here at Penn, and one day he called me up and said, ‘How would you like to come and be my deputy?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” White says. “It was a time in my career when I was really ready to do something different. And it has turned out to be an amazingly wonderful place to practice law, with a community that’s wonderful to be a part of. Once I got here, I had no interest in leaving.”

The Current sat down with White in her office to discuss the ever-changing legal challenges that come with working for a university, changes to Title IX regulations, the University’s role in West Philadelphia, and a certain Penn administrator White keeps on speed dial.

Q: Is the role of the Office of the General Counsel as simple as ‘the University’s lawyers,’ or is it more complex?
A: A lot of people think that if you’re a lawyer for a university or for any client that you either go to court or you review contracts. We do both of these. We do, however, much more than that. We are advisers to the institution in a wide variety of areas. If Penn is developing new policies concerning such matters as privacy, sexual violence, mental health issues, copyright protection, research, employment, gifts, or conflict-of-interest—any one of these areas—somebody in my office is likely to be involved as an adviser or counsel. Similarly, if the Health System is developing new policies or protocols, an OGC [Office of General Counsel] lawyer is likely to be involved. Lawyers are most useful in providing structure and advice, and helping to address problems that members of our community need to have solved. It’s a much broader role than managing lawsuits, which is only a very small part of what we do.

Q: What happens during an average week for you?
A: The University is much like a small- or medium-sized city. We have student and faculty issues, a large and vibrant campus, an active alumni population, and a world-class health care system. We have a significant faculty and staff population, so we have a steady stream of labor and employment issues. We own four hospitals, so we have a very dynamic and complex health care practice. This means my day can be consumed concentrating on the new Title IX regulations, or I could be working on a major research collaboration. My day can go from dealing with any one of those big issues, to someone calling and saying, ‘What do I do about this contract?’ or ‘What do I do about this personnel issue that’s coming up in my school?’ I handle both sorts of problems—issues that are really major priorities for the institution, to issues that are important to any of our many campus clients.

Q: Is there anything that you deal with regularly that you never dreamed you’d do when you took your position?
A: Many things. [Laughs] When I came here, I often say, I couldn’t spell ‘intellectual property.’ I didn’t know what it meant for a university, didn’t understand technology transfer, or all the intellectual property issues that arise at a research institution. I now spend much of my time on these important and really interesting issues.

Q: So, as new types of legal issues arise—say, privacy, for example—how do you keep up?
A: Keeping up is a challenge. We have about 22 lawyers in this office, and these lawyers are specialists and experts in specific fields. OGC has experts in intellectual property, tax, real estate, student affairs, employment, health care, and in privacy. Our lawyers keep up in their own fields. University lawyers also have a national organization, the National Association of College and University Attorneys, and we rely on them to provide conferences, seminars, and webinars. We have an annual meeting that lasts three-and-a-half days where we learn about the hot issues of the day. There is also a group called the Ivy General Counsel-Plus, which has an informal listserv, and we meet periodically to discuss the issues we are all confronting. So, I have these peer groups, and every morning I read The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

Q: What are your own areas of expertise?
A: When I came to Penn, my real specialty was in litigation and labor, and employment. I also had done a fair amount of crisis management and work for nonprofits. As for the other pieces of this job, I’ve learned since I’ve been here.

Q: The Perelman School of Medicine is the University’s largest recipient of federal grant money. What are some of the unique challenges that come along with overseeing the legal side of a major health system?
A: Academic medicine is an enormous and complex enterprise. Penn’s health system has four hospitals, a rehabilitation center, and a facility for hospice care. And at the same time, Penn Medicine is a major world-class research enterprise, and the School of Medicine is one of the most elite and highly regarded medical schools in the country. The University, unlike some academic medical centers, owns its health care system, which creates wonderful opportunities for the advancement of medicine, but also results in many legal issues and challenges. Lucky for all of us, Penn has Lee Dobkin, chief counsel for Penn Medicine, to manage these issues.

Q: You mentioned that the University functions like a city. How does that dynamic affect your office’s relationship with the Division of Public Safety?
A: I am a very close friend of [Vice President for Public Safety] Maureen Rush. I think she’s unbelievably good at what she does, and it’s incredibly important that we have a good relationship. She and I both often say that there are tensions built into the different roles that we play. She’s supposed to be keeping this campus safe, and I want to make sure we keep it safe, but I worry about academic freedom, privacy, and other rights of the community. There could be, and have been at other institutions, real clashes between Public Safety and the Office of the General Counsel. That is not the case here. And it’s because Maureen has an excellent feel for an educational environment and understands what it means to provide public safety on a college campus. I’ll just say she’s No. 1 on my speed dial.

Q: What sorts of tensions are specific to Public Safety and General Counsel?
A: One of the major issues we struggle with is the tension between open expression and public safety. When you have controversial speakers on campus, you want to make sure they’re given the opportunity to speak—because that’s what we do as an educational institution, and that’s important to our mission—but we don’t want to put our campus at risk. So we have to manage that balance appropriately. Another example is the creation of an open but secure campus. When you walk into a building, how difficult is it to get into the building? The more security you have—swipe cards, people at the front desk—the more you’re building in a safer environment, but at the same time you are limiting access to the public. It is important that Penn is both welcoming and secure. Those are the kinds of issues we deal with together.

Q: You’ve spoken publicly as an expert on issues surrounding labor, higher education, and ethics. What is your role in Penn’s greater mission of being a neighborhood leader and economic catalyst?
A: Dr. Gutmann promulgated the initial Penn Compact and has now articulated her vision of the Penn Compact 2020. Our job, I always say, is to support that vision and those important initiatives in whatever form they may take. OGC works to support inclusion, innovation, and impact. We are active in real estate development, technology transfer, community projects, sustainability efforts, and the like—efforts that advance the president’s strategic priorities. We work with the Office of Government and Community Affairs, Communications, Facilities, Finance, Business Services, Human Resources, Development, Student Life, the Museum, the President and Provost’s Office, the Penn Center for Innovation, Athletics, Admissions, the Office of the Secretary, the schools and centers, and all our other clients across campus on these projects. We work very closely with campus entities that are developing projects internationally. We’ve been very much involved in the development of the Penn Wharton China Center and the Botswana-UPenn Partnership. The Botswana initiative has developed from a very small project to a significant collaboration with Botswana, providing health care and training in the country for local providers and for our own students. We worked closely with the School of Medicine in developing the infrastructure for that program. In short, our job is to support the initiatives, small and large, that the University is interested in pursuing, and that are President Gutmann’s highest priorities.

Q: Is there a particular initiative or group of initiatives that you feel particularly proud to have been involved in?
A: OGC was integrally involved in the development of West Philadelphia—in the development of the Sadie Alexander School and other educational affiliations, the housing and retail initiatives, and community engagement projects. Then, when the University looked from west to east with the development of Penn Park, our office supported the development of the extraordinarily beautiful space and the policies supporting the use of the space. People in my office were very much involved; it’s been a huge success, and we’re all very proud of being part of that. We’ve also spent an enormous amount of time in our office devoted to increasing the diversity of our community, which is another one of the major priorities of President Gutmann. I personally have spent considerable time working with our schools both on employment initiatives and on the admissions effort in making sure we have diversity policies that are both effective and responsive to the community, while falling within the legal parameters that govern these initiatives. I think of the things I’ve done personally, I am particularly proud of those efforts. Finally, I am very proud of the way that the Office of General Counsel is perceived on campus—as helpful service providers who can help our clients achieve their goals.

Q: What types of legal or policy issues can help increase diversity on a college campus?
A: On the admissions side, there has been lot of litigation. The preeminent cases came out of the University of Michigan—[Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger]—and they set the standards for what universities can and can’t do in affirmative action in the admissions process. In employment, there are both statutory restrictions and legal cases that govern the extent to which an employer can take steps to enhance diversity. We have taken the time to address these issues and educate our community about what those parameters are and how to be effective strategically in enriching the community by making sure we are attracting the best and the brightest students, faculty, and staff.

Q: You served on the Penn Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol, and Campus Life, which primarily focused on the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, and the consequences for student conduct. What is the importance of better understanding student reliance on drugs and alcohol?
A: This is a significant national issue. It is not a Penn-specific problem in any sense. Every college campus is dealing with this challenge and struggling to find solutions. Alcohol use and binge drinking, especially when students are first here and just getting used to being away from home, create dangerous and high-risk behaviors. We have at Penn an extraordinary Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Education Office as part of the [Division of the Vice Provost for University Life], and we have developed and implemented numerous campaigns and programs, policies and protocols, training and educational initiatives, all in an effort to address this issue. It starts at New Student Orientation, and continues throughout the academic year for all students. Tackling the problem is really a cultural and educational process. There is no simple solution. Which is not to say that we don’t continue to work at it, because it’s critically important. The Alcohol Commission recognized the excellent efforts in place, and encouraged continued work to make sure that Penn was at the forefront of dealing with this problem.

Q: Could you talk about some of the changes to Title IX and how your office is dealing with them?
A: In the last two years, there’s been a national focus on prevention of sexual assault on college campuses. The Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, the White House, and Congress have issued new regulations, proposed legislation, and guidance on the procedures, processes, and policies that universities should adopt around this issue. The requirements are quite complex, and there is no single solution. Every institution has to develop its own set of procedures and policies to make sure they are effective for their campus community. We are working with our partners across campus in making sure that we have the best possible policies and practices at Penn. We have a Title IX group that meets regularly to assess our compliance, education, and training programs. There was a new education program for New Student Orientation, and a new education module for graduate students. We’re all making sure that we reach out to all the groups that should be involved in these efforts. We need to create a culture of prevention and safety. We are also revising our student disciplinary process to make sure it is effective and appropriate. So, there is a lot going on.

Q: Are there any other issues that you’re constantly thinking about?
A: Yes! There are a lot of issues, day-today, that keep me awake at night. At the moment I think the Title IX issues and the issues being addressed by the Mental Health Task Force, on the student side, are the most concerning. Internet security issues are also hot right now, and again, it’s not a Penn-specific  issue. [Information Systems & Computing] just spent a year doing a deep dive into this issue—and this effort, combined with the expertise of our internet security leadership, has been enormously helpful in working to prevent a major security breach. And then, there is the exciting and transformational and translational work of the School of Medicine and other schools— and all the legal issues generated by these extraordinary efforts. There are complex collaboration agreements, licenses, conflict-of-interest policies, regulatory structures, litigation, intellectual property determinations, research protocols, and so on, that are always on my mind. It’s really complicated and really interesting, but all of those issues keep me up at night.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of the work you do?
A: While much of what I do can be frustrating—we are usually dealing with problems, after all—working for such extraordinary clients is exciting, exhilarating, and rewarding. I also serve as a freshman academic adviser, and I find that this job is really satisfying. I advise smart and engaging students and help them shape their academic careers and their lives more broadly. The lawyers and staff in this office are amazing. I mean, truly amazing. They are smart, they are dedicated, they are collegial. We have such a wonderful group and working with these colleagues is a terrific opportunity for me. And I can’t end without saying that I have an extraordinary boss. I know that I am incredibly lucky to work with such a talented, visionary, and fabulous university president. She’s a superb client. Having the chance to work on this campus makes all of the challenges of this job more than worth it. It’s true. And I’ve said this many times and I believe this—it is the best job for a lawyer in America.

Wendy White