BOSTON – Tufts University on Thursday announced the immediate removal of the Sackler name from all buildings and programs at its medical school, with leaders citing the family’s role in the nation’s opioid crisis.
The decision is among the most dramatic rebukes leveled by a growing list of institutions that have cut ties with the Sackler family. The family owns Purdue Pharma, the maker of the addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, and has donated millions to colleges, universities and museums.
Tufts’ financial ties date back to 1980 when the university’s graduate school of biomedical studies was founded with a Sackler gift. The family has given Tufts $15.1 million in philanthropic gifts since that time.
Tufts President Anthony Monaco pointed to the “human toll of the opioid epidemic, in which members of the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma are associated.” In a statement he said, “it is clear that continuing to display the Sackler name is inconsistent” with the university’s values.
The decision to strip the family’s name “also acknowledges the countless individuals and families who have suffered so much loss, harm, and sorrow as a result of the opioid crisis,” and, he said “acknowledges members of our own community who have struggled on a daily basis with the university’s very public association with the Sackler name.”
Despite the move, Tufts does not plan to return the unspent portion of the family’s donation. School officials say the money will be used on causes such as cancer and epilepsy research.
The university, which is not accepting new Sackler donations, also plans an education exhibit inside the medical school to explain the Sackler family’s involvement and teach lessons from the opioid epidemic.
“We are not seeking to erase this chapter of Tufts’ history,” Monaco said.
More: Prestigious universities around the world accepted more than $60M from OxyContin family
The affected buildings and programs are: 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.
As part of the announcement, Tufts revealed plans to establish a $3 million endowment to support education, research and civic engagement programs aimed at preventing and treating substance abuse and addiction.
According to Tufts, the Sackler family’s donations began with contributions 40 years ago from Arthur Sackler, who died in 1987, a decade before his company introduced OxyContin.
Tufts’ decision follows an internal investigation this year into the university’s ties with Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family. The report was led by former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Donald Stern.
Tuft launched the investigation after the state of Massachusetts, in a complaint filed against the drug company, accused it of trying to buy influence at the university in a push to expand the prescribing of the pill by physicians, The Boston Globe reported.
More: OxyContin maker agrees to tentative opioids settlement but it falls short of national deal
Tufts said the Stern report, released Thursday, found no wrongdoing by the university, or any breach of policy or arrangement in which the Sacklers agreed to fund a program in exchange for certain outcomes or curricula. But the report did conclude there was “an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue, the Sacklers, and Tufts.”
“This donor relationship existed and continued in the face of growing evidence and concern about Purdue’s role in marketing opioids, without the necessary scrutiny and due diligence,” the report said.
Daniel Connolly, the Sackler family’s attorney, in a statement said the family is “seeking to have this improper decision reversed” and is currently reviewing all available options.
He called the Stern report’s findings of no wrongdoing or threat to academic integrity “emblematic of so many of the negative stories surrounding Purdue and the family, that a careful look at the facts proves the allegations to be false and sensational.”
He said Tufts’ decision was not based on findings in the report but rather “unproven allegations” about the Sackler family and Purdue.
“There is something particularly disturbing and intellectually dishonest when juxtaposing the results of the Stern investigation with the decision to remove the name of a donor who made gifts in good faith starting almost 40 years ago.”
In response to Tufts’ decision, Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur Sackler, said her late husband had “nothing to do with OxyContin,” nor were any of his philanthropic gifts connected to opioids or 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.”
The Associated Press reported last month prestigious universities worldwide accepted $60 million from the Sackler foundation over the past five years as the company fought lawsuits stemming from the opioid epidemic. Some of those lawsuits have come from states and local municipalities.
Schools including Tufts and museums that benefited from Sackler donations have attracted protests in recent months calling for them to disassociate from the pharmaceutical dynasty.
Tufts appears to be the first university to drop the Sackler name.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum no longer accept money from the Sackler family. Yale University also has agreed to stop accepting new Sackler gifts, but buildings and centers on campus – and at other institutions including Harvard, Columbia and Cornell universities – still carry the Sackler name.
At Harvard University, the AP reported, activists have pressured the school to strip the Sackler name from a campus museum, but administrators have argued the money for the building was given before OxyContin was developed.
Peter Dolan, chairman of the Tufts Board of Trustees, said the decision to remove the Sackler name was made after “long, difficult, and thoughtful deliberation.”
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.