Institutional News

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker to Give Commencement Address at Bennington College; Gives Endowed Gift in Memory of David Beitzel MFA ’83

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, a leader in international social justice philanthropy, will address the class of 2021 at Bennington College’s 86th commencement on Friday, May 28, at 7:30 PM.

aerial view of college campus

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, a $14 billion international social justice philanthropy. He is widely recognized as one of the leading thinkers about philanthropy’s role in catalyzing change, refocusing the Ford Foundation’s work to focus squarely on reducing inequality of all kinds. He chaired the philanthropy committee that brought a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first non-profit in US history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond in US capital markets for proceeds to strengthen and stabilize non-profit organizations in the wake of COVID-19.

“Over the course of his extraordinary career as a leader in philanthropy, civic action, governance, education, and the arts, Darren has woven an unwavering commitment to social justice and equality through nearly every aspect of American life,” said Bennington College President Laura Walker. “Darren has been particularly focused on the intersection of creativity and public action, something that has long-been at the core of a Bennington education.”

“No generation of young people in recent memory has faced such unique challenges as the ones caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am thrilled to celebrate these graduates who have prevailed against such unforeseen circumstances to achieve their goals and step into the next stage of their lives,” said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. “Bennington graduates are not only talented thinkers, but also doers, who leave ready to make their mark on the world. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to impart words that hopefully inspire and empower these young leaders as they set out to build a better future.”

Darren Walker also has a personal connection with Bennington College. His late partner, David Beitzel, who passed away in 2019, received his MFA in Painting in 1983 from the College and was a former trustee and longtime volunteer. In 1992, David established the annual Adams-Tillims Lecture—which hosts leading visual artists, curators, critics, and art historians—in honor of two of his teachers and mentors at Bennington, visual arts faculty members Pat Adams and the late Sidney Tillim. David served as trustee of Bennington from 1995 to 1999, volunteered for a range of other efforts, and hosted many alumni events in his SoHo gallery over the years. Among his other commitments, David served as a trustee of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, Skowhegan School, and In the Life, a pioneering public television series on LGBT issues. 

In memory of David and in recognition of his fierce commitment to art and activism, last year Darren Walker and Mr. Beitzel’s siblings, Skip Beitzel and Tish Beitzel Vredenburg, made a gift to Bennington to create an endowment for the David Beitzel MFA ’83 Arts in Action Field Work Term. This fund, which will begin awarding support in 2022, will provide annual scholarships to fund internship opportunities for high-need students who are pursuing work in the visual arts connected to public action or activism. The Ford Foundation, under Darren's leadership, also gave $50,000 to Bennington College's Prison Education Initiative in the spring of 2020. 

Darren Walker grew up in rural Texas and was a member of the first Head Start class in 1965. He received BA, BS, and JD degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, attending with support in part from a Pell grant. He has been included on numerous leadership lists: Time’s annual 100 Most Influential People, Rolling Stone’s 25 People Shaping the Future, Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, Ebony's Power 100, and Out magazine’s Power 50. 

Darren Walker co-chairs New York City’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers and has served on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform and the UN International Labour Organization Global Commission on the Future of Work. He co-founded both the US Impact Investing Alliance and the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. He also chaired the philanthropy committee that brought a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. He serves on many boards, including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Hall, the High Line, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and Pepsico. In the summer of 2020, he was appointed to the boards of Square and Ralph Lauren. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees and university awards, including Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal.