Amy Gutmann was born in New York. Her father was from an Orthodox Jewish family, and he was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler ascended to power. He fled, bringing his four siblings to India. Gutmann told Adam Bryant of The New York Times in June 2011: The biggest influences on me for leading preceded my ever even thinking of myself as a leader—particularly my father's experience leaving Nazi Germany. Because I would not even exist if it weren't for his combination of courage and farsightedness. He saw what was coming with Hitler and he took all of his family and left for India. That took a lot of courage. That is always something in the back of my mind.
Gutmann attended Radcliffe College of Harvard University as a math major, received membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude in 1971. She received a Master of Science in political science from the London School of Economics in 1972, and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1976. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Gutmann taught at Princeton University from 1976 to 2004. In 1990, she became the first Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor at Princeton and the founding director of its University Center for Human Values, which was among the first among the first university-wide multi-disciplinary ethics centers in the world. As provost at Princeton University from 2001 to 2004, she oversaw Princeton's plan to expand the undergraduate student body by 10 percent.
In 2004, she became the eighth President of the University of Pennsylvania, and her tenure as a President was the longest in the school’s history. Her leadership has been called transformational. She was committed to making Penn a global leader in teaching, research, and professional practice, and a force for social, economic, and civic progress. In her role as President, Gutmann oversaw fundraising campaigns at Penn that yielded over 10 billion dollars—more than doubling the school’s endowment.
Gutmann has been a leading national advocate of using financial aid and other tools to promote socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Gutmann made Penn one of the handful of universities in the country that substitute grants for loans for any undergraduate student with financial need. In September 2009, for the first time in Penn's history, all undergraduates eligible for financial aid received grants rather than loans in their aid packages. Students from typical families with incomes less than $90,000 paid no tuition and fees, and those with incomes less than $40,000 also paid no room and board. In 2017, one out of eight incoming Penn students were the first in their families to attend college, up from one out of 20 in 2004.
She was passionate about Penn making contributions locally, nationally and globally. One illustration of this was the University's $100 million commitment to the Philadelphia School District to remediate environmental hazards. Under her leadership, the school developed the President's Engagement Prize, which provide up to $150,000 annually for graduating seniors to design and implement impactful local, national, and global engagement projects.
She became the US Ambassador to Germany in 2022.