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Harvard's Sackler Dilemma

The University should carefully consider ethics when accepting major gifts

UPDATED: January 27, 2018, at 4:49 p.m.

Photographer Nan Goldin, whose work is displayed in the Harvard Art Museums, has recently called upon the University to refuse donations from the Sackler family. The Sackler name is associated with a pharmaceutical dynasty closely linked to Purdue Pharma, which developed and manufactured OxyContin, the opioid drug with which Goldin long struggled with addiction.

Goldin is certainly not alone in her struggle. Some consider OxyContin (in large part as a result of Purdue Pharma’s misleading marketing of the drug) to be a primary contributing factor to the opioid epidemic, which on average claims 115 lives daily and ravages the nation with crippling addiction. Now, after publicizing the hashtag #ShameOnSackler and organizing her advocacy group Prescription Advocacy Intervention Now, Goldin is urging institutions like Harvard to cut ties with the family.

Harvard should carefully consider whether it should disavow the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, whose namesake donated to create the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The University must acknowledge the moral and financial quandaries that come with accepting money from a foundation accused of links to OxyContin. Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin and whose board features eight members of the Sackler family, has been sued time and time over for misleading the public, physicians, and regulators about the addictive effect of OxyContin. The company and three past executives pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2007.

Given the complex relationship the foundation holds with Purdue Pharma, however, we believe historical clarity is necessary before coming to a firm decision about the foundation’s moral culpability and whether or not Harvard should accept its funds. Family politics, especially when it comes to industry giants, are complicated. The Sacklers are not a monolithic unit, and they are divided in their support of and degree of connection to Purdue Pharma. Elizabeth A. Sackler, who runs the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, has condemned Purdue Pharma’s practices. She has further stated that her father, Arthur, and his descendants have not benefited financially from the sale of OxyContin.

She is correct that she and Arthur M. Sackler have not been direct financial beneficiaries from OxyContin. Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler bought Purdue Pharma, then Purdue Frederick Pharma, in 1952. While Mortimer and Raymond operated as joint CEOs, Arthur acted as a more passive board member. He died before the company released OxyContin, and his descendants sold their shares to the other two brothers.

But that does not necessarily absolve Arthur M. Sackler and his descendants of moral responsibility for the systems of power, information, and norms that enabled OxyContin’s rise. Arthur M. Sackler revolutionized the way drugs are marketed, directing campaigns not only toward patients but towards doctors. His marketing of the tranquilizers Librium and Valium not only provided much of his wealth, but also set a standard for marketing campaigns that encouraged liberal prescribing practices with little regard to the addictive potential of drugs. He also co-founded the company I.M.S., which Purdue Pharma contracted to collect data on doctors’ prescribing practices. I.M.S. data not only allowed Purdue to track the effectiveness of their marketing but made them aware of the "pill mills" doctors were running out of their offices.

None of this information makes a clear cut case that Harvard should cut ties with the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation. Arguably, it does not even morally condemn Sackler himself. Rather, it signifies that Harvard’s relationship with this foundation requires further investigation. Above all, this conversation must be guided by a thorough investigation into the complex dynamics of the Sackler family—its finances, ethics, and societal influence.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

This editorial has been updated to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTION: January 27, 2018
An earlier version of this editorial indicated that the Arthur M. Sackler Museum was funded by the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation. In fact, it was funded by Arthur M. Sackler.

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