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Student Activists Call on University to Dename Sackler Buildings at Harvard Art Museums ‘Die-In’

Dozens of Harvard students staged a "die-in" at the Harvard Art Museums on Thursday to protest the University's ties to Arthur M. Sackler and his family.
Dozens of Harvard students staged a "die-in" at the Harvard Art Museums on Thursday to protest the University's ties to Arthur M. Sackler and his family. By J. Sellers Hill
By J. Sellers Hill and Nia L. Orakwue, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard students and organizers staged a protest and “die-in” at the Harvard Art Museums Thursday to condemn the University’s connections to Arthur M. Sackler and his family, whom they charge with enabling and profiting from the opioid crisis.

More than 50 protesters called on Harvard to remove the Sackler name from all University sites and departments — including the Arthur M. Sackler Building and Arthur M. Sackler Museum. In addition, some protesters urged the school to invest in a more available supply of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

The protest, which started at 12:30 p.m., took place in the atrium of the Harvard Art Museums and included chants such as “Shame on Sackler,” “Take Down the Name,” and “No More Drug War.” Protesters also dropped empty pill bottles onto the floor as bloodied paper money and palm cards rained down from the second floor balcony.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed the school is reviewing a proposal to dename the two buildings, which was submitted last fall by members of the Harvard College Overdose Prevention and Education Students to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Process for Denaming Spaces, Programs, or other Entities.

“The university has established a process for considering de-naming spaces, programs, or other entities. A proposal to de-name the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Building has been submitted and is currently under review,” Newton wrote.

The protesters are part of a larger group of activists who argue that members of the Sackler family who largely owned the multi-billion dollar drug company Purdue Pharma began the ongoing nationwide opioid crisis. Since 2007, local, state, and federal governments have claimed in an extensive series of lawsuits that members of the Sackler family knew Purdue Pharma’s pain relief drug OxyContin was highly addictive, but they downplayed its dangers when marketing it to doctors.

In 2020, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three federal criminal charges related to its promotion of OxyContin and reached a $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice — a move that dissolved the company. In 2022, members of the Sackler family agreed to pay as much as $6 billion in a settlement related to the opioid crisis, though they have never admitted criminal wrongdoing.

Speakers at the protest cited examples of other neighboring institutions who have cut ties with the Sackler family, including Tufts University, which in 2019 removed the Sackler name from all programs and facilities on its Boston health sciences campus.

“No family is more singularly responsible for the opioid crisis that has devastated so many lives,” Harvard Student Labor Action Movement organizer Will M. Sutton ’23 said in an address at the protest. “The Sackler family specifically targeted working class communities for opioid distribution, fostering and then profiting from the addiction of marginalized people.”

Sackler — who donated millions to Harvard in the 1980s to fund the construction of the museum — died before OxyContin came to market. Still, activists contend he helped develop marketing tactics that Purdue would later use to sell OxyContin.

“Denaming is not erasing or rewriting history — it’s acknowledging and conceptualizing it,” Clyve Lawrence ’25, a leader of the Winthrop House denaming campaign and a Crimson Editorial editor, said in an interview following the demonstration.

“We’re just trying to highlight that history in saying that it is a moral failure. It’s been a moral failure since those names were put up, and we should be very clear in future processes of naming how our community feels about it, what we can do to highlight histories that are much more positive,” he added.

The protest was organized by Harvard student activists in coordination with Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, an advocacy group founded by photographer Nan Goldin — whose works are featured in Harvard Art Museums’ private collection — that targets the Sackler family.

The demonstration comes almost five years after a similar protest, led by Goldin, demanded the buildings be renamed.

PAIN activist Harry Cullen led the crowd of protesters through a call and response statement condemning Harvard’s continued association with the Sackler family.

“We are here today to call out Harvard for supporting the Sacklers — a family of billionaires that profited off our pain for generations starting with Arthur Sackler,” Cullen said, echoed by a crowd of protesters. “Five years ago, Nan Goldin and PAIN came here to show Harvard the way to reject the Sackler legacy. Now Harvard students have brought PAIN back to repeat our demands: take down the Sackler name.

“We won’t wait another five years. To uphold the Sackler name is to launder their reputation, to be complicit in their crimes,” Cullen added.

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow has previously said it would be “inappropriate” for the University to remove the Sackler family name from campus buildings, citing “legal and contractual considerations” as well as Arthur Sackler’s passing before OxyContin was developed and marketed.

Bridget S. O’Kelly ’23, co-president of HCOPES, said she was “shocked” by the student turnout.

“I think this is an issue that touches a lot of people,” said O’Kelly. “It was really amazing to see all the students show up and kind of put their voices and their bodies behind this movement.”

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nia_orakwue.

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