President Amy Gutmann joined the Wharton School’s April 22 online coronavirus course. Gutmann, a distinguished moral and political philosopher, joined Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett, in a wide-ranging conversation where they touched on Gutmann’s unique experience not only as a University leader, but also her extensive knowledge in bioethics.
“President Gutmann gave a tour-de-force presentation, not only reminding us how fortunate everyone at Penn is to have her as our president, but also underscoring her stature as one of the world’s leading ethicists as well as one of America’s most effective and dedicated public servants,” said Garrett.
Gathering some of its top business professors and a wide range of multi-disciplinary experts to offer real world, in real time insight, Wharton launched the live online course on March 25 dedicated to the coronavirus crisis—Epidemics, National Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty.
The school is offering the new course to teach students about the economic and business disruption caused by the pandemic. Each week, the course examines the outbreak from a new angle.
Course topics include discussions about the scale and scope of COVID-19, budgetary implications, the impact on global supply chains and markets, behavior during times of disaster, leading in uncertain times, and geopolitical effects, according to Mauro Guillen, Wharton’s Zandman Professor of International Management, who is teaching the course.
On Wednesday, Gutmann joined the class as a guest lecturer for a live hourlong discussion with Garrett.
Gutmann provided valuable insights to the class, said Guillen.
“She shared with students her expertise on bioethics, noting the tradeoffs that societies frequently have to make between individual liberties and collective security,” said Guillen. “And she shared details about Penn’s response to the crisis, one that focuses on the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff, and on planning for a safe return to campus.”
Gutmann served for eight years as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues during the administration of President Barack Obama. During her term, the world was gripped by the 2014-16 Ebola crisis; Gutmann oversaw the production of a brief for Obama on the ethical challenges raised by public health responses to pandemic disease.
Through the lens of her work, Gutmann offered a unique perspective on the challenges that leaders are facing in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by comparing it to the characteristics of the Ebola crisis.
“It was only six years ago when 40% of Americans said they were terrified of this deadly disease called Ebola,” she said, “and it was ravaging Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. These three West African countries took a devastating loss. And the mortality rate was estimated at 40%. So there was this huge panic and then once the epidemic waned, Americans and much of the world lurched from panic to complacency. Bioethics is practical and it helps us learn from our history.”
Gutmann touched on the ethical challenges that policymakers, business leaders, and citizens are living every day in real time during the COVID-19 crisis. She said there are three main lessons to learn.
“First, if you want to protect yourself and the people in your country, you have to think globally. COVID-19 proves beyond a reasonable doubt that global health is local health. When it comes to highly infectious diseases, whether we are saving lives in China or West Philly, we are also doing our part to save lives wherever we call home. Because contagious diseases don’t respect borders.
“Second, health equity affects us all. There is a disproportionate toll that this pandemic is taking in the United States on African Americans and low income communities. These communities have individuals dying at disproportionally high rates. And we can close this gap in the U.S.
“Third, we must invest in public health and innovative research that saves lives and stimulates the economy. Think of our dependence on clean water, air, and nutrition. We all need to educate the public and invest more in the development of public health measures in the research that leads to public health solutions. Our lives and our livelihood literally depend on this,” she said.
Gutmann also talked about the specific actions that Penn has taken in its educational, research, and patient care programs during the coronavirus crisis.
“Somebody said we are living in dog years—there came a point where every day began to seem like a week because of how much information we had to consume and digest,” she said. “I feel the stress, sadness, and disappointment of thousands of people here at Penn. I also have never been prouder to be the president of the University that has a hospital system, a health system, and group of researchers who are literally saving lives.”
Gutmann recalled once she saw the reports of the contagion rate of COVID-19, the extreme symptoms, and the death rate, she recognized there was real danger ahead.
“So, our first message on COVID-19 went out to the Penn community on Jan. 24. That was three days after the first U.S. confirmed case on the West Coast,” she said. “Penn led by taking strong action and keeping the community informed of the information we were getting, which was as we now know, little but precious. Once we learned COVID-19 cases were doubling every two to three days, I knew we had to make a high-stakes decision under the tightest time pressure. We had to evacuate our campus and move all classes online.”
Students submitted questions for Gutmann prior to her lecture, and the most asked-about topic was the University’s plans for the fall semester. Her response:
“What I know for certain is how much I want to restart our campus-based activities,” she said. “We cannot yet know when. But I know that we will do it as soon as we can.”
Gutmann explained Penn is planning for the best path forward to restart campus life.
“We cannot know how the current pandemic will play out in the months ahead, but what you can know is with our Health System and the team that includes a wide range of expertise, we are planning for every possibility, including ramping up our own capacity,” she said. “I know we will unite again on Penn’s campus and fuel our local and global economy.”
“I was really struck by just how apposite Amy’s new ‘three Rs’ are for doing well personally and doing good for society in our world today: Be resourceful, be resilient, and be responsible,” said Garrett.
The coursework for the class, which is split among more than a dozen topics taught by various lecturers, is integrating lessons on business and economic disruption from other major unexpected events, such as terrorist attacks like 9/11, market crashes such as the one during the 2008 financial crisis, and natural disasters like the 2011 earthquake in Japan, according to Guillen.
“Students will also learn the present and near-term effects of coronavirus-like events on the stock market, business operations and global value chains, and ways in which companies can adapt,” he said. “We think we need to prepare our students for these types of events which are unfortunately occurring very frequently.”
One student enrolled said the classes so far have been timely, insightful, and captivating.
“I am grateful we have a class on this topic,” said a Wharton MBA student. “I especially appreciate that it draws attention to vulnerable populations. I’m excited about all of the guest lectures.”
As countries around the world are scrambling to reign in the coronavirus and understand its ultimate impact, and as the pandemic dominates the global conversations, Wharton is using the turmoil as a learning opportunity.
“A primary goal of the class is to bring expert knowledge on how to deal with these crises to investors, workers, consumers, and savers, so that they are better informed and can make better decisions,” said Guillen.
The six-week, half-credit online course is the first at the University to focus on the pandemic, and is being taught by 14 different lecturers.
Even though the course is listed under Wharton, Guillen said that Penn students across every undergraduate and graduate school have enrolled, and there was no cap on enrollment.
The course meets virtually each Wednesday for three hours. The lectures are also recorded online for students in various time zones. Assignments are posted on Canvas, while lectures are given over a virtual classroom program that incorporates class participation through messages.
Lecturers include Mohamed El-Erian, senior global fellow at Wharton and chief economic advisor at Allianz; Kent Smetters, professor of business economics and public policy and a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research; Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy in the Perelman School of Medicine; Katherine Milkman, Evan C. Thompson Endowed Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and a professor at Wharton; Sigal Barsade, Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at Wharton; Martine Haas, director of the Lauder Institute at Wharton; and Garrett, Wharton’s dean and professor of management and private enterprise.
Video content has been edited down from the original presentation.