Addressing the Opioid Crisis and Corporate Responsibility for a Healthier Humankind

Beyond maximizing shareholder value, what is the true purpose of the corporation? It’s a question of increasing relevance for today’s principled, innovative leaders at all levels. For Bethany Patten, EMBA ’13, (Lecturer; Senior Associate Director of the Sustainability Initiative), it is, and always has been, by MIT Sloan’s definition, a question inextricably linked to sustainability and to America’s leading public health crisis—the opioid epidemic.

“When profit was placed ahead of medical data and human impact in treating pain,” says Patten, “that’s when pharmaceutical companies crossed the line into business practice that was not only unethical, but also epically unsustainable.”

With an eye toward continuous improvement, Patten sought to reimagine the MIT Sloan Sustainability Certificate signature 15.878 Capstone Seminar in Sustainability. Understanding that sustainability had long centered on environmental topics, she looked for cases that could explore the social dimensions and uncovered the pharmaceutical companies at the center of the opioid controversy. Using what she learned, Patten transformed the spring 2019 offering from a routine academic requirement to a worldview-changing, integrated learning experience that gets to the root of corporate responsibility.

“Multiple circumstances led to this idea,” Patten says. “Many students pursuing a Sustainability Certificate are interested in diving deeper into the corporate and social dimensions of sustainability. And, as an involved citizen here in Boston, the human pervasiveness of the opioid crisis is impossible to ignore, with a crisis of conscience at its core.”


Though MIT Sloan has long been a leader in the theory and practice of sustainable business (posting the first Sustainability Certificate program of its kind among top-tier management schools seven years ago), Patten drew additional inspiration from the school’s boundary-breaking work in labor economics, system dynamics, and experiential learning.

Rather than a survey of topics learned, Patten redesigned the capstone to be an integrative learning experience that sends students out into the Greater Boston community to engage in understanding unintended consequences and explore interventions. Instead of focusing solely on the corporate strategic perspective in a case analysis of pharmaceutical companies’ choices, the course brings leading policymakers, public health experts, criminal justice leaders, and caregivers into the classroom to give students context on the real-life repercussions of corporate decisions.

“This model for active and multidimensional learning has unmatched power,” says Patten. “To quote our faculty director John Sterman, ‘Research shows that showing people research doesn’t  work.’” When students explore a problem in the field, they are living the experience rather than observing it from afar. That creates both an emotional response and a connection to the community that doesn’t exist in a classroom.”

So far, the model is working. As one 2019 MBA candidate wrote in a class assessment, “I thought it was so useful…because it allowed us an opportunity to see the real people behind this problem. I think one of the most important things that can help us be ethical leaders who can make a positive impact and make the right decisions in those critical moments is to ‘get close’ to the problems we are trying to solve.”


Leading the charge in introducing the effects of corporate behavior on society to MIT Sloan comes naturally to Patten, as her involvement with city politics and the local community is longstanding. In addition, her natural affinity for connecting academic rigor to corporate decision-making through her long involvement with recruiting organizations for the sustainability Action Learning Lab allows her to share that imaginative leap with her students. “For instance, how can our students, along with local businesses, come together to design experiments that reduce the over 400,000 discarded syringes that litter our streets every year?” Students learned that with this kind of challenge comes potential solutions, leading directly to opportunities, such as job creation, public–private collaboration, and other creative forms of community problem-solving.

“While this may not be the first program of its kind at MIT Sloan, it really represents mens et manus in its purest form: getting in there, as students and mentors, with a hands-on approach . . . the kind that can get lost in a modern educational experience that’s increasingly digital. We must not lose the hands-on aspect of mind and hand. And that’s what makes funding for this kind of program more critical than ever.”


“The symptomatic opioid crisis is a wicked problem impacting over 2 million Americans,” Patten says, “but one that our problem-led leaders are perfectly qualified and increasingly motivated to understand and start to address.” Sustainability Certificate alumni are part of a growing community of leaders motivated to take action on a myriad of social, sustainability-related issues. Many are putting their enthusiasm, energy, and expertise back into the critical work of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan. Patten invites all alumni to get involved.

“Come back, share your experiences with us, and help us continue the virtuous cycle that will empower today’s and tomorrow’s leaders to act in the interests of a better world.” The Sustainability Initiative’s mission is to deliver the best education, apply academic rigor to real-world problems, and empower leaders everywhere to take action. The redesigned capstone course checks all three boxes, and gives students a strong foundation for making change.

These are the questions that will get us to a sustainable future, Patten believes. “And the systemic approach we take at MIT Sloan to answering them lends the power to go beyond aspiration into real-world practice. That’s where the support of our own community can make all the difference.”