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I spent some of the summer after my first year at Harvard Law School working on the case against Purdue Pharma, the company that infamously produced and marketed opioids to horrific ends. That case, which has now been settled, opened my eyes to the awful truth of how the Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma manufactured not just opioids, but the opioid overdose crisis we now find ourselves in. A staggering 107,600 Americans died in 2021 because of the crisis, 15 percent more than the year prior.
And so, when I came to campus that fall to begin my first in-person year at Harvard Law, I was shocked to see the Sackler name again — this time, prominently displayed on one of the three buildings that compose the Harvard Art Museums.
A sea change in public opinion, practical application, and even entertainment surrounding the opioid overdose crisis has begun to sweep through the country. Harvard has not just ignored that change, but steadfastly resisted it, choosing instead to defend the naming of the Arthur M. Sackler Building.
Harvard has upheld its ties to the Sackler family even as experts (including at this University) widely acknowledge them, via Purdue, to be responsible for organizing, fomenting, and ultimately profiting off the opioid overdose crisis and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s unclear whether the University has officially responded to the latest proposal by students, earlier this academic year, to remove the Sackler name from the Harvard Art Museums.
The fact that the Sacklers have, through their immense wealth and influence, essentially purchased their immunity from prosecution tied to opioid-related lawsuits makes it so much more damning that Harvard, in maintaining the Arthur M. Sackler Building, continues to offer a prestigious platform for their toxic philanthropy.
Outside of the Harvard administration, the tide is shifting in how we as a society choose to respond to the opioid crisis. Two weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter sales of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, and we’ve seen renewed investigative reporting on elite institutions like Oxford University continuing to court the Sacklers. Just last month, President Joe Biden acknowledged the crisis in his State of the Union speech, and the month before that he signed a bill into law which will make it easier for people suffering from addiction to get the care they need. All told, we’re arriving at a tipping point for the opioid overdose crisis.
And yet, Harvard seems willfully immune to the growing awareness slowly capturing the rest of the country that we must take action. The new documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” director Laura Poitras’ film about the life, art, and anti-overdose activism of artist Nan Goldin, put Harvard’s inaction into relief for me. It is a real-life David and Goliath tale that artfully illustrates how the Sackler family has leveraged the worlds of art and elite philanthropy to evade accountability, openly laundering their public image.
In 2018, Goldin organized a rally at Harvard to remove the Sackler name from our buildings. In other words: Harvard has had notice. This call to action is not new — Harvard has simply failed to respond.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows just how many other elite institutions have taken the opportunity to simply do better. Since that rally took place, institutions including The Louvre, The Guggenheim, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have all either scrapped the Sackler name or refused to take their money in future in the face of ongoing pressure from Goldin and her activist group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, as well as increasing public awareness and outrage. These institutions’ actions have shown that, despite any nominal internal constraints pulling them elsewhere, stopping the glorification of the profiteers behind today's opioid overdose crisis is a goal that is not only worthy, but possible.
So why has Harvard held out?
The University contends that Arthur Sackler died several years before the proliferation of OxyContin from the company his family controlled, and is therefore irrelevant in discussions about his family’s ties to the crisis. Nevermind that it was Arthur Sackler’s aggressive advertising and supercharged sales schemes that provided the playbook and fertile ground for an explosion of OxyContin sales just years after his death.
It’s therefore easy to understand how a person like Arthur Sackler could possess both the ability to create an advertising scheme that skyrocketed use of opioids and a similar scheme to elevate his own family’s name via art institutions. Harvard is complicit in that calculated self-advertisement: Just as the Sackler family was able to deceive doctors and the public about the effects of opioids, Harvard and the Sacklers are deceiving the public about whether or not the Sackler family name is one worthy of our respect.
Outgoing university president Lawrence S. Bacow has referred to calls to remove the Sackler name from our buildings as “inappropriate,” citing “legal and contractual obligations” as an insurmountable challenge. And yet other institutions who have moved to reject Sackler money or remove their name from buildings have been able to rise to this challenge. As Claudine Gay begins her tenure as president this summer, there has never been a better time to cut ties with the Sackler family once and for all.
It is not a sign of weakness for Harvard to admit it has made the wrong call and join the side of progress, especially as the Harvard community pushes for change, year after year. It’s a shame it will have taken as long as it has, but the bigger shame would be continuing to prop up a family that has caused so much harm to so many.
Harvard, it’s past time: Sack the Sacklers.
Hannah Finnie is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.
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