But the issue has been simmering much longer. At a "faculty of color" dinner at Gutmann's home in April, faculty members pointed out that Gutmann had failed to hire a dean of color since arriving in 2004. Gutmann, they said, allegedly responded that she would not bring in someone who was not qualified.
They said they would rebuff Gutmann's invitation to dinner this year.
"So consider this an early RSVP," they wrote. "We can no longer mask our disappointment, stifle our outrage, or pretend not to notice the incongruity between internal actions and public words of commitment to diversity at the institution that we serve."
The letter was signed by six faculty members, including Camille Charles, chair of the Africana studies department and director of the center; and Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former provost and chancellor at other universities. The others are Barbara Savage, Vivian Gadsden, Kenneth Shropshire, and Tukufu Zuberi.
Gutmann came back on Thursday with a letter of response to the newspaper, acknowledging the need for more diversity in the administration and noting efforts under her watch to add diversity to the student body and faculty.
"Increasing diversity at every level of our university has always been and remains one of my highest priorities," she wrote. "I have charged every dean and senior administrator at Penn to make diversity their priority as well.
"There are areas, such as academic administration, where progress has been slow and where we need to work even harder. We are unequivocally committed to doing just that."
Of the top 100 administrators at Penn, 87 are white, seven black, three Asian, one Hispanic, one international, and one of more than two races.
Charles, who is also past chair of the faculty senate, said several Africana studies faculty members submitted candidates of color to the search committee. She cited Larry Gladney, a physics and astronomy professor and chair of the department, who applied and who she said was qualified, but who was not interviewed. She said she was not sure whether he made the committee's list of recommended candidates that was given to Gutmann.
Gladney confirmed Charles' account. He is in his 27th year at Penn and fourth year as department chair. He also was faculty senate head for three years.
Penn spokesman Stephen J. MacCarthy defended the hiring process: "We hired the person who we felt was absolutely the best person for it."
He noted that the university had diversified its student body. In 2004, 12 percent of the incoming class was underrepresented minorities, compared with 20 percent in 2011.
The university also launched a $100 million, five-year plan to diversify faculty, he noted. A 2010 report showed that 17.5 percent of Penn's faculty was minority in 2009.
Lack of diversity has been a long-standing issue at universities around the country.
Though she was not one of the letter writers, Grace Kao, a professor of sociology, education, and Asian American studies, said she was glad her colleagues had spoken out.
"We need to be the conscience of the university," she said.
She said she would, however, go to Gutmann's dinner: "It's important to remind them we're here."
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.