Image courtesy of Today2 via Wikimedia Commons

December 5, 2019; TuftsNow and New York Times

Philanthropy is becoming an increasingly skimpy cover for the doers of bad deeds. TuftsNow reports, “Tufts University will remove the Sackler name from all programs and facilities on its Boston health sciences campus,” citing an announcement from Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco and Chair of the Board of Trustees Peter Dolan.

The Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma, have, according to a commissioned report, have donated $15 million to Tufts since 1980. Furthermore, Richard Sackler served on the Board of Advisors of Tufts University School of Medicine for almost two decades until university officials asked him to resign in 2017, a resignation that the report indicates was prompted by a New Yorker exposé on the Sacklers published in October of that year.

The Sacklers, however, have vowed to fight the removal of their name from Tufts. “We will be seeking to have this improper decision reversed and are currently reviewing all options available to us,” said Daniel Connolly, an attorney for members of the Raymond Sackler family. Of course, family members are also facing pending lawsuits from more than 600 cities, counties, and tribal nations that could cost them billions; one wonders how high a priority fighting the action by Tufts will be.

For her part, Jillian Sackler, widow of Arthur Sackler, objected to the removal of buildings with Arthur Sackler’s name; Arthur Sackler died in 1987, well before OxyContin came to market.

Dr. Harris A. Berman, the dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, noted, “Our students find it objectionable to walk into a building that says Sackler on it when they come in here to get their medical education…The Sackler name is a problem, whether it’s the Arthur Sackler name, or all the Sackler names.”

Nicholas Verdini, 24, a first-year medical student who lobbied for the change, said the university’s decision “was emotional, not only for the cause, but because I lost my sister to the opioid epidemic, and it felt like a big win for her.”

The university’s decision stems in part from the publication of the Stern report. As NPQ reported, earlier this year university president Anthony Monaco asked former US attorney Donald Stern to review a program on pain research that Purdue Pharma executives helped start at Tufts. The report, released this week, found no evidence that Purdue or the Sackler family directly controlled curricula, but did find that “Purdue intended to use the relationship with Tufts to advance its own interests and, in a few particular instances, there is some evidence that it was successful in exercising influence, whether directly or indirectly.”

For example, the report notes:

In 2015-16, a committee within TUSM [Tufts University School of Medicine] decided not to assign Dreamland, a book on the opioid crisis that focused on OxyContin, was critical of Purdue’s role, and mentioned the Sackler family. The book had been proposed as the Common Book to be read and discussed by all incoming MD students and MPH students. While other books were suggested and only one was to be chosen, the reason that another book was selected instead of Dreamland was due, in significant part, to the existence of the donor relationship with the Sacklers and Purdue and the desire to avoid controversy regarding that relationship. This incident reflects a mindset that may have existed within Tufts, or at least among certain officials within the Advancement department (whose responsibility it is to nurture positive relationships with major donors) to give Purdue/Sackler some deference in areas that related to their business, even without the donor having to ask for it.

The report, in its recommendations, did not specifically address university ties with the Sacklers but did recommend, as TuftsNow reports, “that the university adopt stronger screening procedures for donors, develop more stringent conflict-of-interest policies, develop and make publicly available guiding principles for gift acceptance, strengthen compliance practices and leadership, and take other steps to ensure that its academic and research programs remain free of undue influence…The university’s administration and trustees have pledged to implement the policy recommendations as soon as possible.”

With respect to the Sacklers, university president Monaco explained the university’s decision as follows: “Tufts University School of Medicine’s values include a commitment to relieve suffering, improve quality of life, and promote integrity and social responsibility. Given the human toll of the opioid epidemic in which members of the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma are associated, it is clear that continuing to display the Sackler name is inconsistent with these values.”

Dolan, the university board’s chair, added,

This is a step the university has never taken before. We were compelled to take action by the extraordinary circumstances of this public health crisis and its impact on our mission. We are grateful for the students, faculty, and alumni we met with who made it clear that the Sackler name now runs counter to the mission of the medical school, has had a negative impact on their studies and professional careers, and contradicts the purpose for which the gifts were initially given: to advance public health and research.

Specifically, Tufts has committed to:

  • Remove the Sackler name from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences; the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Medical Education; the Sackler Laboratory for the Convergence of Biomedical, Physical and Engineering Sciences; the Sackler Families Fund for Collaborative Cancer Biology Research; and the Richard S. Sackler, M.D. Endowed Research Fund. The name is not on buildings on other campuses.
  • Establish a $3 million endowment to support education, research, and civic engagement programs aimed at the prevention and treatment of addiction and substance abuse.

Monaco notes that removing the Sackler name from buildings and websites does not mean that the family’s past association with the university is to be forgotten. As Monaco explains, “It is part of this institution’s history forever and we intend to create an educational exhibit inside the medical school to describe the Sackler family’s involvement with Tufts and to educate the community about lessons we all must learn from the opioid epidemic.”—Steve Dubb