Libraries and lecture halls at Yale are decorated with donor names, and many of its programs are named after benefactors that endowed them. At universities across the country, conversations about whose legacies are memorialized have sparked reconsideration of historic names and name changes. Yale ended years of controversy over Calhoun College when it renamed the building last year. But what can the University do when a donor whose name is contractually linked to a building or program is publicly soiled?
Established in 2008, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences at Yale is an endowed, integrated umbrella research program that aims to increase communication among different science departments. The Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company embroiled in lawsuits with New Haven and several states also ravaged by the opioid epidemic for the role the company’s prescription painkiller OxyContin allegedly played in the ongoing public health crisis.
Opioids and the Sacklers
Late last October, New Haven sued Purdue Pharma for the company’s role in the opioid epidemic, hoping to obtain funds to combat the crisis. Nationwide, states including New Jersey, Washington and Louisiana have taken similar action against the corporation, which has come under fire for deceiving doctors and patients in marketing OxyContin, a painkiller that has brought over $30 billion to Purdue since its introduction.
“The city decided to join this lawsuit, which names Purdue Pharma and other manufacturers and some distributors,” New Haven City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer explained, “because the city seeks relief for the strain put on city resources to deal with emergency calls to overdose victims, for homeless services … and in joining this suit the city seeks to hold responsible the manufacturers and marketers and distributors of these drugs that lead to opioid addiction and these social ills.”
He said the city had to appeal to the state of Connecticut for additional doses of Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose, last year because New Haven was going through its supply too quickly.
New Haven’s suit alleges that starting in the mid-’90s, pharmaceutical companies, led by Purdue, schemed to boost opioid sales by falsely promoting products and “recklessly and negligently denying or trivializing the risk of addiction.” Among the charges are allegations that the companies paid off doctors to promote opioid prescriptions, that it provided millions to “front groups” with “official sounding names” which spread falsehoods about addiction risk, and that Purdue Pharma claimed addiction risk from OxyContin was negligible despite two papers funded by Purdue in 1998 showed that between 8 percent and 13 percent of patients studied subsequently became addicted to opioids. New Haven saw 44 opioid related deaths in 2016, the suit read.
Purdue has yet to file its response, according to communications director Robert Josephson, who stated that “OxyContin has been and continues to be appropriately prescribed by doctors to bring needed relief to millions of Americans suffering from severe pain” and emphasized the Sackler family philanthropy before and after the genesis of OxyContin. He provided Purdue’s response to a lawsuit filed by state of Ohio in May, which says the company was in compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines and warning labels and denies that Purdue was involved with front groups which disseminated information about opioids.
For Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Purdue’s wrongdoing is the Sacklers’ wrongdoing. As the inventors and owners of Purdue, the Sacklers deserve the “lion’s share” of the blame for America’s opioid crisis, he said.
He explained that the United States’ opioid epidemic is as severe as it is because the medical community began aggressively to prescribe opioids in the ’90s in response to what Kolodny deems a “brilliant marketing campaign” carried out by Purdue. He said the company has faced legal consequences for some of the specific ways in which it marketed OxyContin, but it was never punished for the “nonbranded marketing” they performed by persuading the medical community to feel more comfortable prescribing opioids.
Yale, geographically inseparable from New Haven, faced controversy for its ties to the family. Raymond Sackler was co-chairman of Purdue with his late brother Mortimer Sackler prior to his death in July. The University’s Sackler ties were mentioned in an October New Yorker piece, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe. Keefe pointed to Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College but pressed that the University seems to be in “no hurry” to rename the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences or the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship of Internal Medicine.
“Perhaps it’s because the Sacklers, unlike the Calhoun family, still have a fortune to give away,” Keefe wrote.
The Sackler controversy was also discussed in a News article last year, which pointed out that when the Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences was endowed in 2008, Purdue was already at the center of a number of suits. At the time of the 2017 article, University President Peter Salovey told the News there is “no doubt” the country has an opioid crisis, but that “it is also clear that generosity from the Sackler family has funded issues core to Yale’s mission.”
Harvard University has drawn similar controversy for its Arthur M. Sackler Museum, one of three Harvard Art Museums, which is named for the third Sackler brother. The building, which opened in 1985, is home to Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture Department and its Media Slide Library. The Harvard Art Museums’ public relations office directed all Sackler-related questions to Patrick McKiernan, a spokesman for Harvard.
McKiernan said Harvard was “not interested in participating” and hung up the phone.
The Principles of Renaming
Questions about the Sacklers at Yale come amidst national debates about renaming on college campuses. Buildings, often bearing the names of white supremacists, have been renamed at Duke, Georgetown and Princeton universities, among other institutions. On Feb. 11, 2017, Salovey released a campuswide email announcing that, after a month of review by a special committee and years of protests by activists, Yale would rename Calhoun College.
Prior to creating the committee which reviewed the Calhoun question, Salovey formed a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, chaired by law professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, which developed the guidelines under which Calhoun College was recommended for renaming. The committee’s 26-page report includes four main guiding renaming principles, as well as two “presumptions” which state that renaming should be an exceptional event and that “the presumption against renaming is at its strongest when a building has been named for someone who made major contributions to the University.”
Although the principles have yet to be applied to a program, as opposed to a building, they have the possibility to be, according to David Blight, a history professor and a member of the committee. But, he said the Sackler program is just one of many potentially unsavory names at Yale. The renaming of Yale Commons as the Schwarzman Center following a donation from Stephen Schwarzman ’69, a private equity manager who served briefly on one of President Donald Trump’s business advisory councils, also spurred contention on campus this year.
“The reality is, as you know, this is how major universities function. Almost everything here has someone’s name on it,” said Blight. “My first reaction, I’m afraid, is skepticism, because behind great wealth there is always going to be an awkward story. Behind great wealth there will be a crooked path of some type, whether that wealth was made in fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, real estate or finance.” He emphasized that the committee called for rarity in renaming and that renaming should only occur under “fairly remarkable circumstances.”
Committee member Stephen Pitti ’91, director of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program, on the other hand, was unsure that the committee’s principles apply to an endowed program because they were developed for an honorific name. “We were working on whether to remove ‘a historical name from a building or other prominent structure or space on campus.’ Issues related to donations or endowed funds were not in our charge,” he wrote in an email to the News.
Sharon Oster, a School of Management professor and another member of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, said the committee’s purview was looking at names given by Yale to honor certain individuals. In her eyes, a name applied to a building or program because of a financial gift has a different connotation.
“As a general matter, when a donor gives you money and the stipulation is that their name be appended to something, it is at least problematic if you decide to remove the name from the point of view of future donors,” she asserted.
The first principle of the committee report asks if a principal legacy of the namesake [is] fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University. The report states that “asking about principal legacies directs us to consider not only the memory of a namesake, but also the enduring consequences of the namesake in the world.”
The second principle asks whether the relevant principal legacy [was] significantly contested in the namesake’s contemporaries. “A principal legacy would be fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University if, for example, it contradicted the University’s avowed goal of making the world a better place,” the guidelines read.
New Haven’s lawsuit is not the first time Connecticut has challenged Purdue — its opioid marketing has been contested for over a decade. In 2001, Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, D-Conn., then the state’s attorney general, called on Purdue Pharma to overhaul its marketing of OxyContin and encouraged the company to donate its profits to treatment and rehabilitation for OxyContin addiction. He sent a letter to Richard Sackler outlining his concern that addiction to the drug was “a real, present and growing danger.” In 2004, Blumenthal filed a citizen petition with the FDA requesting a revision to warning labels on the drug’s packaging. A 2008 response by Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, denied the request and said Blumenthal had not provided sufficient evidence of the drug’s danger.
“Now, our nation is in the midst of a full-blown public health crisis — a predicted and preventable catastrophe,” Blumenthal wrote in a statement for this article about the company’s role in the opioid crisis. “I have repeatedly asked pharmaceutical drug manufacturers like Purdue to provide safer products and support changes in prescribing practices to reduce opioid overuse. Drug manufacturers have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to act.”
John Gaddis, history professor and a member of a second committee who reviewed Calhoun College in light of the Principles of Renaming, said the principles outlined by Witt’s committee made his committee’s job easy and straightforward. He explained he and the two other committee members — Calhoun alumni Leonard Baker ’64 and Jacqueline Goldsby, chair of the Department of African American Studies — held discussions and exchanged report drafts for about a month before releasing their recommendation in favor of renaming.
Gaddis noted that Calhoun’s legacy was easy for the committee to determine — Calhoun himself announced on his deathbed that he wanted to be remembered as a defender of slavery. Were the committee deciding the legacy of other historical campus namesakes, the process may have been more complicated, he admitted.
Gaddis said it would have been more complicated, for example, if the committee were asked to determine the legacy of Samuel Morse, who was an inventor, an artist and a white supremacist — different legacies that would have had to be weighed by the committee. It is harder to determine a legacy for someone who is still alive, he added, as legacies can change. Wendy Xiao MED ’18, an eighth-year medical and doctoral student who served on the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, asserted that living members of the Sackler family, which includes Beverly Sackler, can still change their legacies if they wish to do so.
Eileen O’Connor, vice president for communications, would not disclose the conditions upon which the Sacklers’ programs were endowed and said the University is not currently moving to reconsider the name, but they have received queries about the issue from members of the Yale community. She also did not respond directly to a question about whether the University vets endowed donors based on potential ethical controversies. However, she wrote in an email that the naming of endowed funds and programs at Yale often involves “extended conversations” in which the University learns “a great deal about the interests and motivations of its donors.” After the funded program has been named, “the University is contractually and ethically bound to the terms of the gift agreement,” according to O’Connor. Changing the name would require either consent from the donor or a choice by the University trustees to return the gift or appeal to a court to alter the name of the program, she explained. “I don’t see us keeping the [Sackler] funding [if the program were renamed],” O’Connor said to the News.
O’Connor also provided a University statement about the Sackler programs that says it is “heartbreaking” that communities nationwide must deal with the “devastating effects” of the opioid crisis but adds that it is difficult for the University to “judge the company’s intent to treat pain as well as to evaluate its role in the subsequent opioid crisis.”
Xiao said there are other funds which do “good work” but are bound to potentially unpleasant legacies. She offered the Rhodes Scholarships as an example, explaining that the program was named for Cecil Rhodes who amassed a great fortune from colonialism and slavery across a vast continent. The foundation is required by its charter to keep the name and must grapple with Rhodes’ legacy “every day.”
“I’m not opposed to anything on campus being reconsidered, really considering the legacy of a person, but if the University were to apply the principles, there are logistical issues such as in accepting this endowment, did they promise it would be named after so and so, that’s one aspect that the Committee did not really address,” Xiao added.
In an interview with the News, Blight asked what the Sackler Institute accomplishes. “Aren’t you going to have to weigh what does this program does, is it funding valuable research? That would have to be part of this, you end up weighing comparative goods and comparative evils,” he said.
The Sackler Institute
The Sackler Institute includes a graduate student program — the Integrated Graduate Program in Physical and Engineering Biology — a Sackler Discussion Series and a summer research program for undergraduates from other universities. Funding from the program supports outreach work at New Haven schools and provides seed money for professors’ research, according to program director Lynne Regan, a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Classes, including Integrated Workshop and Biological Physics, are also funded by the program. Regan said Raymond Sackler, a Connecticut resident, approached Yale with an interest in funding research at the interface of physics and biology in the New York or Connecticut area at a time when science professors at Yale were struggling to support students interested in multidisciplinary research.
Neither Regan nor members of Yale’s administration would disclose the amount the Sacklers contributed to the program, which receives additional funding in government grants. The Sacklers do not direct research, but they visit occasionally to check on the program and see how their money is being spent, according to Regan.
Corey O’Hern, director of Undergraduate Programs for the Sackler Institute and a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, emphasized the importance of the Institute in fostering collaboration between departments at Yale. According to O’Hern, there is a lack of grants supporting such research on the national level. “The funding, independent where it’s from, has been crucial to developing this interdisciplinary research and training,” said O’Hern. “The thought of it going away is scary, stressful and sad.”
Mary Lou Bailey, a third-year graduate student in applied physics, said the Integrated Graduate Program in Physical and Engineering Biology — the graduate program under the Sackler Institute — offered resources she did not find at other universities she applied to. Bailey, who studies the dynamics of DNA in the nucleus of the cell, heard about the program during an interview with her advisor and applied after she was accepted to Yale. Besides allowing her to meet researchers in other fields, she said PEB paid for part of her stipend through a training grant and has paid for her to attend scientific conferences, including the summer International Physics of Living Systems Network in Paris. Danny Seara, a third-year physics graduate student studying biophysics, said PEB, which he learned about during a post-acceptance visit weekend, played a role in his decision to attend Yale. Seara, who studies biomechanics and forces within cells, explained the Institute has served primarily as a network for him to meet researchers across different fields to work with. He has not received funding from the program, but he said biology courses he took through the program have been useful.
The Sackler family also has ties to the Yale School of Medicine. In 2009, the family endowed the $3-million Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship in Internal Medicine which was held until last year by Thomas Lynch Jr., who declined to comment. The position is currently held by Charles Fuchs, who directed requests for comment to a hospital spokesman. In an August 2014 issue of Medicine@Yale, medical school dean Robert Alpern called Richard Sackler a “steadfast friend of the medical school” in a “time of decreased federal funding.” Alpern referred requests for comment to O’Connor.
Despite benefits from the Sackler Institute, Kolodny maintained that Yale has a moral impetus to rename the program. “Yale University, if they are taking money from the Sacklers, they are taking blood money,” Kolodny argued. “That money came from the marketing of the Sackler family’s activities which led to millions of people becoming addicted and thousands of people dying.”
“I think Yale University can afford to give the Sacklers back their money,” he added.
Given the financial incentive the University has not to rename, it seems likely the Sackler name is here to stay. According to Blight, it is possible increased controversy could cause Yale enough “discomfort” that it decides to reexamine the Sackler name. If that happens, the University will have to appoint a new committee to review the name in light of careful scrutiny of the family, he said.
“If it gets proven through lawsuits and other means that this drug, more than anything else, fueled the opioid epidemic, and if it’s been shown that this company really did mislead everyone, and if a record is shown and Yale gets sufficiently concerned that it appoints a committee to access the viability of a name like this … boy that committee is going to have a harder job than we did,” Blight mused to himself.
Sara Tabin | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Jan. 28: The article has been updated to reflect Patrick McKiernan’s current title as a spokesman for Harvard University.