Tufts University on Thursday became the first major university to strip the Sackler name from buildings and programs, after months-long conversations and a report that censured the school for its relationship with the family behind OxyContin, an opioid blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide.
The Sackler family gave Tufts $15 million over nearly 40 years and got its name prominently displayed throughout the university’s Boston health sciences campus — on the graduate school of biomedical sciences, on the center for medical education, and on laboratories and research funds.
While there is no evidence that the financial relationship, which ended in 2016, materially affected academics, “there was an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue, the Sacklers, and Tufts,” the outside report by former US attorney Donald K. Stern found. And the company was successful in “exercising influence, whether directly or indirectly.”
Ultimately, the Sackler name has become so intertwined with the nation’s opioid epidemic, it no longer belongs on the university’s medical buildings, Tufts president Anthony Monaco said.
“It’s untenable,” Monaco said. Tufts will now “move forward with its mission and its values in mind, and no longer [be] associated with a name that is associated with a major health crisis in America.”
In a statement, Daniel S. Connolly, an attorney for members of the Sackler family, said that Purdue Pharma and its owners did nothing wrong in their relationship with Tufts and that the name shouldn’t be wiped out from the campus.
“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,” Connolly said. “We will be seeking to have this improper decision reversed and are currently reviewing all options available to us.”
In a statement, the widow of Arthur Sackler said that her husband died in 1987 before OxyContin was marketed, and that his donations to Tufts and his name on the medical school building should not be tarnished.
“It deeply saddens me to witness Arthur being blamed for actions taken by his brothers and other OxySacklers,” Jillian Sackler said, referencing other relatives more closely aligned with the controversial opioid.
Tufts officials acknowledged that their relationship with the Sackler family was lengthy, complicated, and sometimes beneficial. The university will not revoke the honorary degrees given to Arthur Sackler in 1984 or his brother Raymond Sackler in 2013.
Tufts — like many institutions that have cut ties with the Sacklers — will not return any of the money it received from the family or its company, Purdue . But Tufts will set up a $3 million fund for education, research, and civic engagement programs aimed at fighting substance abuse and addiction.
Tufts joins a growing list of institutions, including museums, art galleries, and hedge funds, that have sought to distance themselves from the Sackler family, who were once the nation’s most sought-after philanthropists.
Critics have charged that the Sackler family and Purdue boosted their reputation and influence by donating to and tying their name to the most prestigious institutions in the world.
Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been critical of Purdue’s influence on institutions such as the World Health Organization, said others should follow Tufts’s lead and remove the Sackler name from their buildings.
“I commend Tufts for the seriousness with which they approached the issue,” Clark said. “When they are accepting money, it is their responsibility to understand what comes with the money.”
For years, there was little consideration at Tufts about the source of the money and the ethical considerations of taking it, according to the review the university released Thursday.
Tufts commissioned the Stern study earlier this year, after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a complaint against Purdue and members of the Sackler family. Healey alleged that the company tried to improperly influence academic research and programs at the Tufts medical school.
After a review of e-mails, documents, and interviews with dozens of Tufts officials, the school’s outside investigator found no evidence “of improper demands, quid pro quos, [or] conditions on donations or grants.” Still, the donations had sway.
“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,” according to the report.
Stern faulted Tufts administrators for being too deferential to the major donor and recommended that the university strengthen its oversight and policies on gifts and corporate relationships.
In 2015, for instance, a medical school committee opted against assigning all incoming medical and public health students the book “Dreamland,” which was critical of Purdue and the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis.
For about a decade, Purdue was also the primary outside funder for the Pain Research, Education and Policy at the Tufts School of Medicine, a small graduate-level degree program.
The program’s cofounder and longtime director, Daniel Carr, appeared in an ad for Purdue in 2002 and was even briefly considered as a company spokesman, according to the report.
At the time, Carr was sympathetic to Purdue’s regulatory battles and called them a “witch hunt,” according to the report.
In a December 2001 e-mail to Richard Sackler, the former chairman and president of Purdue, Carr wrote about the Food and Drug Administration increasing restrictions, “Re: FDA, the whole OxyContin/regulatory hinges on whether we blame ourselves, or the perpetrators who victimize us, for their harmful deeds.”
Carr at the time believed that chronic pain was being undertreated and he wasn’t forced or induced to take his position, the report found. Carr has said that neither Purdue nor Richard Sackler had any input into the pain research program, according to the report.
But one of Purdue’s top executives and an evangelist for OxyContin, Dr. David Haddox, was a longtime lecturer in Carr’s program, generally teaching about the mechanisms of pain and about the history of drug regulation. Haddox sometimes compared the regulation of opioids to Prohibition, even as some students grew concerned that he downplayed the opioid crisis and was an “apologist for the pharma industry,” according to the independent report.
Haddox, who was an adjunct professor at Tufts until 2018, taught for free while on Purdue’s payroll. He mentioned his Tufts credentials in papers he wrote in professional journals and publications.
Haddox declined to be interviewed or answer written questions for Stern’s report.
Haddox’s role at the university has been “overblown” by critics, said Harris Berman, the dean of the Tufts medical school.
“They weren’t pushing OxyContin; they were talking about pain,” Berman said.
The Sacklers’ donations to Tufts were well-intentioned when they were initially given and would have passed the smell test, Berman said.
Berman also warned that research universities need to collaborate with drug and medical companies to make scientific breakthroughs, especially in Boston, where health sciences is such a crucial industry.
“We can’t support research by ourselves,” Berman said.
But the conversation around the opioid epidemic has changed, Berman said, and ultimately, taking the Sackler name off the buildings will be a relief for the students.
“Things change with time . . . the opioid epidemic is much more on people’s mind,” Berman said. “[In] those days you used to think of drug dealers, but now people blame the pharmaceutical companies.”