University quietly severs Sackler ties
Over the last year, Yale has quietly cut ties from the controversial family who propagated the opioid crisis.
The University is in the process of quietly severing ties with the Sackler family, and will soon announce the results of this effort, according to University spokesperson Karen Peart.
The Sackler family founded pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, which produces the opioid OxyContin and is significantly responsible for contributing to the country’s ongoing opioid epidemic. Members of the Sackler family, whose wealth totals around $11 billion, have donated millions of dollars to the University, endowing two professorships and a program in the sciences. Yet, according to University officials, Yale began severing its ties with the Sacklers last year, and will soon complete the process.
“In 2021, the University made a decision to pursue a separation from the Sackler name and has been actively working on specific plans consistent with that decision which we expect to announce soon,” Peart told the News.
The news comes after the University had previously declined to comment on multiple occasions in the last three months on whether they were planning to sever University associations with the Sackler family. Peart did not directly respond to a question of whether the University would return the Sackler donation or merely remove the family’s name.
The Sackler family had endowed two professorships at the Yale School of Medicine — the David A. Sackler Professor of Pharmacology and the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship in Internal Medicine — and had also endowed the Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, which has since been restructured under the umbrella of The Program in Physics, Engineering, and Biology.
Professor Mark Lemmon, who was the most recent occupant of the David A. Sackler Professorship of Pharmacology, was reassigned from that professorship last month, according to Peart. This week, the School of Medicine website was changed to remove the name of the Sackler chair.
The Richard and Jonathan Sackler Professorship in Internal Medicine was established in 2009, and the position was held by Dr. Thomas Lynch until 2015, when he left the University. The internal medicine professorship was never reassigned to a faculty member.
According to Peart, the University has no plan to fill either of those professorships.
Professor of Medicine Harlan Krumholz told the News that he feels it is a privilege to name a place on campus, one which requires due diligence from the University.
“Increasingly Universities need to vet donors not just for how much they want to give, and where they want to put their name – but also who they are and how they made their money,” Krumholz wrote in an email to the News. “No one wants to enter the hall named for someone whose largess was generated in shameful ways. We are grateful to donors, but the association with a great University also confers many benefits. In this era, Universities need to be aware of who is being provided that halo. The key question will be where is the line.”
This announcement comes after years of mounting pressure on public and private institutions to purge the Sackler name from prominent places within those institutions. The family has also been entangled in legal battles, most recently culminating in a $6 billion settlement last week.
In the March 4 settlement, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family agreed to pay $6 billion to victims and survivors of the opioid epidemic, as well as states, for their role in causing the crisis. As part of the agreement, the Sackler family must also apologize and allow institutions to remove the Sackler name from buildings and scholarships.
Joel Rosenbaum, professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the Yale School of Medicine, called on the University to return the money and to rename the professorships entirely, rather than just not filling them.
“The name Sackler should be removed from the professorships and the money returned to the Sacklers,” Rosenbaum told the News. “Surely it is tainted money, and I am not sure if those faculty who received the Sackler Chairs are happy having the Sackler name attached to their own. I don’t think either of these actions would be easy to take, and I don’t think I recall Yale ever giving money back to a donor after already receiving and using some of it. At the very least, the money should be used by Yale Medical School to treat those people, locally, who have been touched by the opioid problem.”
One of the most significant removals of the Sackler name came in December, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that it would remove the Sackler name from seven galleries where the name appears.
In a conversation with the News, Patrick Radden Keefe LAW ’05, whose book “Empire of Pain” details the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma’s responsibility for the opioid epidemic, explained the significance of the Met’s decision.
“The Met is hugely significant,” Keefe said. “And I know this, in part, because I’ve talked to people at other cultural and educational institutions that have this dilemma about what to do with the Sackler name, and been told that these other institutions were watching the Met.”
The Sackler’s relationship with the Met is one of the family’s oldest philanthropic partnerships, with the family’s donations to the museum beginning in the 1960s.
In 2019, Tufts University made national news when it announced that it would be removing the Sackler name from five facilities and programs at the University. At the time, Dr Harris A. Berman, the dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, said that “our students find it objectionable to walk into a building that says Sackler on it when they come in here to get their medical education.”
“They feel the names are incongruous with the mission of the school and what we’re trying to teach them, since the name has become synonymous with the opioid epidemic,” Berman told The New York Times at the time. “I think the significance is symbolic, but it’s an important symbolic move.”
At the time, Yale did not remove the Sackler name from campus, but said it would no longer accept donations from the family.
Attorneys representing the Sackler family protested the Tufts decision and said they would seek to have it reversed. Still, the Sackler name remains absent from the walls of the Tufts School of Medicine.
Purdue Pharmaceutical is headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut.