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Tufts removes Sackler family name from facilities over opioid crisis
A worker removes Arthur Sackler's name from a building at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Dec. 5, 2019. Tufts removed the Sackler name from five facilities and programs on Thursday over the family’s role in the opioid epidemic, distancing it from a dynasty closely tied to the school for 40 years. Cody O'Loughlin/The New York Times.

by Ellen Barry

BOSTON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Tufts University removed the Sackler name from five facilities and programs Thursday over the family’s role in the opioid epidemic, a gesture aimed at distancing the institution from a pharmaceutical dynasty closely tied to the school for 40 years.

The Sacklers’ company, Purdue Pharma, producer of prescription painkiller OxyContin, has been cast by prosecutors and plaintiffs as responsible for an addiction epidemic that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans over the past two decades.

A series of major cultural institutions, including the Tate, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, announced this year that they would no longer take donations from the Sacklers.

But Tufts is believed to be the first university to publicly remove the family’s name from its walls.

Dr. Harris A. Berman, dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, called the decision “a wrenching one” for the university but said that students had sent a clear message.

“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,” he said.

“They feel the names are incongruous with the mission of the school and what we’re trying to teach them, since the name has become synonymous with the opioid epidemic,” he said. “I think the significance is symbolic, but it’s an important symbolic move.”

An attorney for Sackler family members blasted the university’s decision, calling it “particularly disturbing and intellectually dishonest” to “remove the name of a donor who made gifts in good faith starting almost forty years ago.”

The attorney, Daniel S. Connolly, said an independent review of the family’s relationship with Tufts, commissioned by the school, showed that “Purdue and the Sackler family conducted themselves properly” and offered no basis for the decision to remove the family name from the campus.

”We will be seeking to have this improper decision reversed and are currently reviewing all options available to us,” said Connolly, who represents family members of Raymond Sackler.

Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur M. Sackler, released a separate response, stating that her husband bore no responsibility for OxyContin.

“The man has been dead for 32 years,” the statement said. “He did not profit from it, and none of his philanthropic gifts were in any way connected to opioids or to deceptive medical marketing — which he likewise had nothing to do with. It deeply saddens me to witness Arthur being blamed for actions taken by his brothers and other OxySacklers.”

Tufts stopped short of a full break with the family.

It has received roughly $15 million in Sackler donations since 1980, and something less than half of that remains unspent in the form of endowed funds, which are used to finance research in cancer and epilepsy, officials said. That money will not be returned.

Nor will the university rescind an honorary degree it awarded to Raymond R. Sackler in 2013, four years before his death.

The university said it planned to open an “educational exhibition” that will outline the Sackler family’s history of involvement with Tufts and address the opioid epidemic.

Berman, the medical school dean, said much of that legacy dates to the days of Arthur Sackler, a brother of Raymond Sackler. Arthur Sackler, who died before OxyContin was introduced, is widely credited with shaping modern medical advertising.

“The donations he made were made in good faith and for the right reasons, so I guess they were positive,” Berman said. “Unfortunately, the association with the name in the public’s mind is not positive.” He said he had tried “for a year and a half” to explain the distinction between the family’s branches and their different roles in opioid marketing, but without success.

“The Sackler name is a problem, whether it’s the Arthur Sackler name, or all the Sackler names,” he said.

Student activists said they were happy with the move. Nicholas Verdini, 24, a first-year medical student who lobbied for the change, ran outside Thursday to look at the sign as soon as he received an email from Tufts informing him that the names were being removed.

“I was genuinely shocked,” Verdini said. “It 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.”

Two weeks ago, Verdini addressed Tufts’ board of trustees and told them about his sister, Katelyn Hart, who was 25 when she died of an overdose. He said several trustees approached him afterward, visibly moved by what he had said.

“The response was much greater than I was expecting,” he said. “It can’t be easy for them to go back on a contract, on a commitment that they made in exchange for a large amount of money. It can’t be an easy decision to make, but I think it was the right one.”

The three Sackler brothers — sons of a Brooklyn, New York, greengrocer, all of whom became psychiatrists — and their descendants gave lavishly to prestigious universities for decades, including $60 million in the last five years, The Associated Press has reported.

Tel Aviv University has a Sackler School of Medicine, and medical schools at Cornell and Columbia each have a Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. Sackler donations also financed research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Harvard, Yale and the University of Cambridge, among many others.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is running for president, has urged Harvard to remove the Sackler name from its buildings, saying the opioid epidemic was “driven by greed, pure and simple.”

Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, said this spring that removing the Sackler name would be “inappropriate,” citing “legal and contractual obligations,” and noting that Arthur Sackler had donated to the university long before OxyContin was developed.

Andrew Kolodny, an academic who has served as a paid expert witness in litigation against Purdue, said universities are concerned that imposing an ethical litmus test on donors would compromise future fundraising. He said it was a misplaced fear.

The Sacklers are “in their own category, similar to a drug cartel,” said Kolodny, a co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University. “The argument that this would open up a can of worms, where would it end — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “It’s very clear to me, at least, that this is blood money.”

Tufts was under particular pressure after the release in January of a complaint filed by Maura Healey, attorney general of Massachusetts, against Purdue and some members of the Sackler family. The complaint argues that Purdue Pharma used its connections to Tufts to promote wider use of OxyContin.

The university Thursday released an independent review of the Sackler relationship that it had commissioned from Donald K. Stern, a former U.S. attorney. The review notes that Tufts made no effort to distance itself from the Sacklers “until autumn 2017 after some highly critical articles about Purdue and the Sacklers appeared in Esquire and The New Yorker magazine.”

Subsequently, Richard Sackler resigned his position on a board of advisers to the Tufts University School of Medicine.

The investigators “found no evidence that the funds materially affected or skewed the academic program,” and no evidence of wrongdoing by the university, but they did say the pharmaceutical company “intended to use the relationship with Tufts to advance its own interests.”

“We conclude that there was an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue, the Sacklers, and Tufts,” the report said. The review recommends that Tufts create a high-level committee to review future donations for possible conflict of interest.

The university is also establishing a $3 million endowment to support programs aimed at the prevention and treatment of addiction.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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