Tufts University announced Thursday it will strip the Sackler name from a graduate school, buildings, and health programs — one of the most dramatic rebuffs so far of the family that controls OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and has donated tens of millions of dollars to educational and cultural institutions worldwide.
The university’s move comes as lawsuits have mounted against the family and Purdue over their alleged role in igniting the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, and amid allegations the family and company sought to generate goodwill and gain influence at Tufts — particularly its pain research and education program — through philanthropy.
A number of museums and schools have announced this year they would no longer accept donations from the Sacklers. Tufts is going further, joining the Louvre, which in July removed the Sackler name from a wing, in scrubbing the family’s name. No longer will programs and facilities at its health sciences and medical school campus, located in downtown Boston, be named after the Sacklers, who along with Purdue have given roughly $15 million to Tufts since 1980.
The university on Thursday also released a report from outside lawyers into the relationship between Tufts and Purdue and the Sacklers. It found evidence that Purdue was “successful in exercising influence, whether directly or indirectly,” in a few instances at Tufts. “We do believe that Purdue intended to use the relationship with Tufts to advance its own interests,” the lawyers wrote.
Tufts does not plan to return any of the Sacklers’ or Purdue’s donations, but announced it intends to start a $3 million endowment for addiction prevention and treatment programs and to create an exhibit at the medical school that will detail the Sacklers’ involvement with Tufts and, as university President Anthony Monaco said, “educate the community about lessons we all must learn from the opioid epidemic.”
“The Tufts University School of Medicine’s values include a commitment to relieve suffering, improve quality of life, and promote integrity and social responsibility,” Monaco said in a statement. “Given the human toll of the opioid epidemic in which members of the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma are associated, it is clear that continuing to display the Sackler name is inconsistent with these values.”
Tufts is one of many universities struggling with how to treat wealthy donors: MIT, for example, has come under attack for continuing to cultivate financier Jeffrey Epstein after he’d been convicted of soliciting prostitution from a minor, and a sweeping federal criminal investigation has exposed how affluent families were able to buy admission for their children to the University of Southern California and other schools.
In an interview Thursday, Peter Dolan, the chair of the Tufts board of trustees, said the board has been discussing what action to take with regard to Sackler-named programs for some 18 months and that it ultimately decided to wait until the independent review was completed. He called the decision to keep the Sackler name on programs at a campus that included a medical school “untenable.”
Going forward, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences will simply be the Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Other programs being renamed include the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Medical Education, the Sackler Families Fund for Collaborative Cancer Biology Research, and the Richard S. Sackler, M.D. Endowed Research Fund.
The university commissioned the outside investigation in February after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey alleged in her office’s lawsuit against Purdue and members of the Sackler family that “Purdue got to control research on the treatment of pain coming out of a prominent and respected institution of learning.”
In their report, the outside lawyers wrote: “We conclude that there was an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue, the Sacklers, and Tufts. This donor relationships 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.”
Tufts, for example, was still trying to solicit donations from the Sacklers into 2018, the report found. University officials did not grapple with whether they should continue receiving support until 2017, even after the company and three executives (though no members of the Sackler family) pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges involving misleading marketing of OxyContin.
The report, however, did not find any evidence that Purdue or Sackler funding undermined academic integrity or altered programs or research. Most of the millions the Sacklers and Purdue gave to Tufts since 1980 went to programs not related to pain or opioids, the review concluded. While the report did not uncover wrongdoing or violations of policy by the university or personnel, it did determine that Tufts officials may have offered favorable treatment to the family and the company and worked to protect them from scandal.
In one case, a medical school committee in 2015 and 2016 opted not to select “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones, which is about the opioid crisis and highlights Purdue’s role, as the book that all incoming medical and public health students would read that year. The committee’s choice of another book, the lawyers write, “was due, in significant part, to the existence of the donor relationship with the Sacklers and Purdue and the desire to avoid controversy regarding that relationship.”
The report was written by Donald K. Stern, a former U.S. attorney, and Sanford F. Remz, both of Yurko, Salvesen, & Remz.
In legal filings, the Sackler family and Purdue have said that their support for Tufts was part of general philanthropy for educational and charitable organizations and was not an effort to influence research or teaching. And in a statement Thursday, an attorney for the family said they will try to overturn the decision.
“We appreciate that after a careful inquiry Tufts determined what has been true all along, that Purdue and the Sackler family conducted themselves properly and no wrongdoing or threat to academic integrity was found,” said the attorney, Daniel S. Connolly. “This investigation’s findings are emblematic of so many of the negative stories surrounding Purdue and the family, that a careful look at the facts proves the allegations to be false and sensational. Tufts acknowledges their extraordinary decision about removal of the family name from campus is not based on the findings of their report, but rather is based on unproven allegations about the Sackler family and Purdue.”
Connolly continued: “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 forty years ago. We will be seeking to have this improper decision reversed and are currently reviewing all options available to us.”
The family and the company have also broadly denied the allegations in the Massachusetts lawsuit, as well as the thousands of other suits the company and others in the opioid industry are facing from states, local governments, and tribes. The suits allege that companies flooded communities with addictive painkillers while misleading the public about the risks and benefits of the medications.
Purdue and the plaintiffs are in negotiations over a global settlement. The company has filed for bankruptcy.
The relationship among the Sacklers and Tufts dates back at least to 1980, when three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, made a donation to name Tufts’ biomedical sciences graduate school. The three brothers in the 1950s had purchased a company that they built into the modern Purdue.
Arthur Sackler died in 1987, almost a decade before OxyContin came on to the market. After he died, his interest in the family company was sold to his brothers. In a statement Thursday, his widow, Jillian Sackler, said, “it deeply saddens me to witness Arthur being blamed for actions taken by his brothers.”
“Arthur had nothing to do with OxyContin,” she said. “The man has been dead for 32 years. He did not profit from it, and none of his philanthropic gifts were in any way connected to opioids or to deceptive medical marketing — which he likewise had nothing to do with.”
Much of the focus of the Tufts-related allegations in the Massachusetts lawsuit centered on Purdue’s support for the medical school’s Pain Research, Education, and Policy program, which was started in 1999 with Purdue as the only outside funder. The company supported the program until 2008.
The report found that the program was broadly multi-disciplinary and accurate in its presentations of pain and pain medications, including opioids, though an expert in addiction who reviewed the curriculum and course materials for the investigation said “there may have been insufficient emphasis in certain courses on the risks of opioid addiction.”
The funding agreement between Tufts and Purdue also “provided Purdue with the potential for direct influence,” the report says, including by giving the company a seat on the program’s steering committee. However, the lawyers found “no evidence that such potential for direct influence was exercised.”
Still, Tufts officials told the attorneys conducting the investigation that that type of funding agreement would never be enacted today. Purdue’s funding of the program was not made widely known at the time and program alumni told the lawyers that they were not aware of the Purdue funding.
As first reported by STAT earlier this year, Dr. David Haddox, then a Purdue executive, lectured in two courses as part of the pain program, which earned him the title in 2011 of adjunct associate clinical professor. The report calls these lectures “the primary opportunity for direct influence.” Haddox was not paid for the lectures.
Haddox disclosed his Purdue affiliation to students, the report found. In a lecture that he gave once or twice on opioids, he did not address addiction or side effects of some pain medications. Students interviewed as part of the investigation found his lectures informative and fair for the most part, according to the report, but three students in 2017 “became upset because they felt he was sweeping the opioid crisis under the rug and that he was essentially an apologist for the pharma industry.”
The PREP program, as it is known, was cofounded and has been led at various times by Dr. Daniel Carr, a pain specialist. Carr’s views have shifted over the years, but in 2001, as a STAT review published in April found, he suggested giving some patients strong opioids early in the course of their treatment and questioned unease around prescribing opioids.
The new report calls Carr “particularly vulnerable” to appearing close to Purdue and says that he “often found himself in a position of agreeing with Purdue and doing his best to accommodate Purdue and the Sacklers.”
Carr was featured in a Purdue print advertisement in 2002, for example (he was not paid), that focused on fighting prescription opioid misuse. The ad “reflects an uncomfortable, inappropriate association with a commercial financial supporter,” the report found. “It also gave some credibility to Purdue’s claim to be fighting opioid abuse.” The report highlights other connections between Carr and the company.
Still, overall, the report concluded that Carr did not violate any Tufts policies or compromise his personal beliefs. It noted that “Carr states that he was just being polite and responsive” to the program’s sponsor, and that neither Purdue nor the Sacklers “had any input into the PREP program.”
The PREP program is ending, though Monaco told STAT that was primarily due to a declining number of applicants.
The lawyers’ report concludes with a set of recommendations for Tufts, such as the appointment of a chief compliance officer and establishing stronger screening procedures for donors and conflict-of-interest policies. Tufts said it planned to implement the recommendations.
In May 2013, Monaco traveled to Purdue’s headquarters in Connecticut to award Raymond Sackler an honorary doctorate. (Raymond Sackler died in 2017.) At the time, Monaco said, “it would be impossible to calculate how many lives you have saved.”
In an interview Thursday, when asked how he viewed that language now, Monaco said, “that reference was to the philanthropic contributions Raymond made over many years.”
“I feel that Raymond was deserving of that honorary degree,” he added, “but on reflection, we should have considered with more diligence” the association between the Sacklers and Purdue and the opioid epidemic.