A Merger (Of Sorts)
Through an emerging partnership with an, international corporation, Bennington students are influencing business–and vice-versa.
In the spring of 2011, Claudy Jongstra, whose studio was commissioned to design tapestries for Bennington’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), described the idea and principles behind the curricular initiative to Feike Sijbesma, CEO of the $13-billion multinational company, Royal DSM. Sijbesma was so struck by the similarity with his own philosophy—to use private resources for public good—that he sent Elizabeth Coleman, Bennington’s president at the time, an email inviting a conversation and collaboration.
Headquartered in the Netherlands, DSM employs 23,000 people globally. A partner of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, DSM is committed to using private profits to respond to the world’s most pressing needs. On a World Economic Forum panel, Sijbesma, with notable directness and simplicity, stated that because private business holds much of the world’s money, it holds the key to solving many of the world’s problems. “It should be a primary goal of the company to make the world a better place. Profit is not a goal; it’s a means.”
Bennington was applying similar principles by bringing the world’s most pressing problems directly into the classroom. Now there was a new dimension to consider—the potential for a dynamic interplay between the College and the private sector. “Most stories about college are about jobs. How colleges should prepare students for jobs, train them to have certain skills, to become more employable,” Coleman, now director of CAPA, explains. “But no one ever asks industry ‘what are you offering to our most talented graduates to make your world sufficiently attuned to their values?’ The point is, it is time the conversation went in both directions. DSM is a stellar example of a company that has the complex mix of values and a commitment to the long view that our graduates are seeking. They invite rather than avoid the conversation about values.”
Bennington and DSM are building a partnership using Field Work Term as a bridge. In 2013 the first four students from Bennington spent their FWT at DSM. Hilary Whitney was one of them. She worked for the Strategic Business Intelligence unit within DSM’s pharmaceuticals branch. The branch currently makes ingredients for companies that manufacture drugs, and they asked Whitney to take on the independent project of researching the industry of authorized generics.
REFLECTING ON HER WORK AT ROYAL DSM BEFORE RETURNING TO BENNINGTON, HILARY WHITNEY WROTE:
“I find myself involved in a loaded business. In the pharmaceutical industry, profitability goes head to head with accessibility. It costs a LOT of money for a big pharma company (think Pfizer) to innovate, approve, and send to market a new pharmaceutical drug. The big pharma companies need to sell their brand name drugs at high prices in order to fund the research and development that advances health care, but generic producers—who essentially take big pharma’s formulas once their patents expire—produce them at much lower costs, increasing accessibility for lower income populations. These things get complex because most people consider equitable health care a human right.
“Based on the interest I expressed in those ethical issues, I was offered the opportunity to design an independent project. I’m going to produce a report analyzing the contentious dimensions of the generic drug industry; the various stakeholders and their interests; how a company like DSM could strategically position itself within this market; and why DSM should have a transparent ethical commitment as we advance our strategy.
“I’m learning about the corporate sector, and the realities of big business. Corporations are not the enemy as they are so often cast in humanitarian campaigns. In fact, I see immense opportunity within this organization for advancing public action.