Protest and a false fire alarm disrupted a Harvard event featuring divisive former drug executive Martin Shkreli Wednesday night, as several people walked out of the auditorium where he spoke and called him derogatory names.
Shkreli, who is widely criticized for his drastic increase of a drug in 2015, was scheduled to speak at 8:30 p.m. at Harvard when someone pulled a fire alarm in the minutes before the event began.
Harvard police evacuated the building, delaying the event by about a half an hour, while protesters crowded around the front of the building chanting “people over profits.”
The former Turing Pharmaceuticals chief executive is free on a $5 million bail as he awaits trial for securities fraud unrelated to work at the drug company.
He received permission from a federal judge to travel to Cambridge for his speaking event for a student financial group billed as a conversation about investing and healthcare, followed by a question and answer session.
Ahead of the event, students and others had planned to protest Shkreli’s speaking engagement by walking out of the event and hosting their own alternative panel about “immoral price gouging,” according to co-organizer Shayla Partridge, 21, a junior at Harvard.
“Shkreli is just one symptom of a very sick system,” Partridge said, explaining the impetus for the alternative event. “Unfair drug pricing and corporate pharma greed is something we work on pretty consistently, and Martin Shkreli has become the icon if that for pretty much anyone college-aged.”
Patridge said her group was not involved in pulling the fire alarm.
When the event did begin, Shkreli addressed protesters in the room.
“If any of you guys are planning to walk out, let me know now so I can make fun of you,” he said.
Some students did leave the event in several waves, interrupting his presentation and calling him a “sexual predator” and a “racist.”
“How am I racist? I am friends with Lil Wayne,” Shkreli said in response. “Maybe that was racist.”
Shkreli, once dubbed the “most hated man in America,” came under fire when his company purchased rights to the drug Daraprim — which treats a rare parasitic infection — and hiked the price from $13.50 per pill to $750. More recently, last month he was suspended from Twitter for his harassment of journalist Lauren Duca.
While most of his presentation focused on his experience in hedge fund management and healthcare, he did reference some of the controversies that plague him, and included a presentation slide featuring photos of Duca.
Near the end of his discussion, Shkreli discussed current medical and pharmaceutical innovations, and said he thought he had a solution for “high prices.”
“Trump should start a drug company,” he said, arguing that the government should step in to guarantee generic drugs without price spikes.
“I would be proud to help implement this,” he said.
The event was open only to Harvard undergraduates, with Harvard police guarding the premises.
The group that hosted the event, the Harvard Financial Analysts Club, is a student-run organization that manages its own $40,000 mutual fund and provides students education on finances, according to their website.
On the Facebook page advertising the event, the group wrote that the discussion was “not a partisan event.” They collected questions ahead of the event and indicated they would not allow questions involving Shkreli’s pending court case or his personal life.
Members of the group declined to comment on the protests or their invitation to Shkreli.
Opinions of students who attended Shkreli’s talk were mixed. Some said they attended solely to protest, while others said they wanted to hear a perspective not often found on Harvard’s largely liberal campus.
Nick Nava, a sophomore, said that having a controversial figure on campus was “good” for Harvard students. According to Nava, Shkreli at the beginning of the event asked that protesters “hear him out.”
“It was great,” Nava said. “I am not a fan of Martin Shkreli, but I feel that him coming to talk about a tough subject that fired up a lot of people was good for us.”
This is not the first time Shkreli has incited student condemnation. Last month, the University of California at Davis canceled his joint appearance with far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after large protests.
Meg Bernhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org