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Symposium explores corporate social responsibility

By Kelsey Roebuck,

Reflecting a long history of social responsibility at Grinnell, the Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility Symposium spent three days this week discussing the intersection of environmental and economic concerns in the marketplace.

“We often cover environmental topics in our symposia but we hadn’t really looked at the intersection of business and environmentalism and sustainability so it was kind of a different angle than what we’d done recently,” said Director of the Rosenfield Program Sarah Purcell ’92, History.

The symposium was made possible through an array of sponsors including the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights, The Wilson Program, The Center for Prairie Studies, the Henry R. Luce Program in Nations and the Global Environment and Grinnell’s Sustainability Committee. The result of this collaboration was a concerted effort to invite Grinnell alumni to share their experiences with the economics of environmentalism.

“Anything that brings past Grinnellians into contact with current Grinnellians and makes us feel engaged and see how a Grinnell education can carry out beyond Grinnell is really exciting,” Purcell said.

The alumni contributed to a particularly broad range of topics, representing almost every section of the symposium.

Photography by John Brady.

“We have alums representing the academic perspective, the business perspective and the kind of economics/consulting perspective … and even in the watchdog panel. So we have alums in almost all the different sectors of the symposium. I think it’s an especially large number of alums for us,” Purcell said.

The topics ranged from the cultural challenge of sustainability to the capitalist impediments to corporate social responsibility and featured a variety of speakers such as the former Director of the MIT Technology, Business, and Environment Program and the owner/general manager of Ferrell Ranch.

“We always want to make sure we cover a spectrum of ideas and perspectives but also different kinds of speakers being represented,” Purcell said.

The symposium was designed to facilitate the one-on-one interactions of students and speakers and featured buffet dinners, formal presentations, panel discussions, and a career connection mixer.

“We want to have the maximum opportunity for students and community members to interact with the speakers … we can watch a TED talk on-line, but you don’t get a chance to eat dinner with the person who talked,” Purcell said.

The symposium offered students the opportunity to learn about various corporate careers as well as the issues facing corporations in today’s environmental and competitive marketplace.

“Students can benefit both personally and intellectually,” Purcell said. “It can add to a lot of the subjects we are discussing in the classroom in a more practical way and also help people connect their classroom work with ideas for their own personal future. And it’s just interesting, too.”

The symposium was designed to connect the Grinnell campus to a larger national and international corporate landscape, although one Grinnell professor had already begun drawing the connections. Doug Caulkins, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, contributed an informational poster featuring the corporate social responsibility theories of former Grinnell president Howard R. Bowen. The poster was a reminder that sustainability and corporate responsibility have been a part of Grinnell’s heritage since the 1950s.

“Well, he’s the founder of the modern school of social responsibility in 1953 … he is the one who has drawn attention to it in such a way that everyone has to look back to his approach and learn from that,” Caulkins said.

Whether it’s 1953 or 2013, Grinnellians demonstrate an interest and even a preoccupation with the intersection of sustainability and corporate responsibility—this week’s symposium just connected the dots.


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