Former Harvard professor and current 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is pushing Harvard University to remove the Sackler family name from its buildings around campus, CNN and The Boston Globe reported Wednesday.
For decades, the Sackler family has owned and operated Purdue Pharma, which created the addictive painkiller OxyContin. Public health advocates blame the drug for the current opioid crisis, which they believe has played a large part in decreasing life expectancy rates in the U.S.
Warren skewered the Sackler family in a Wednesday Medium post outlining her plan to spend $100 billion over 10 years combating the crisis. The plan would dole out funding to states, municipalities and tribal governments for public health surveillance, research and training, along with expanded access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
“This crisis has been driven by greed, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, just look at the Sackler family,” Warren wrote, going on to describe how Purdue came to prominence in the 1950s as the Sacklers “grew their company into an empire” continued on by their children.
“They’re billionaires,” she wrote. “They own mansions around the world. Entire wings of museums in New York and London have been stamped with the family name.”
Sackler family members have donated extensively to Harvard: One of the university’s three art museums takes its name from Arthur M. Sackler, a psychiatrist, medical marketer and art collector who died in 1987. Forbes estimates that around 20 people share in the family fortune.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow told the university’s student newspaper earlier this month that it would be “inappropriate” to remove the Sackler name and return any past donations the school had received from family members. In a statement, the university stressed how the Sackler museum came to bear Arthur’s name because he donated the funds for its original location in 1982; the museum has since been relocated.
“Dr. Sackler died in 1987, before OxyContin was developed and marketed. Given these circumstances and legal and contractual considerations, Harvard does not have plans to remove Dr. Sackler’s name from the museum,” the statement read, adding, “The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation does not fund the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard.”
Arthur Sackler’s wife, Jillian Sackler, wrote a passionate defense of her late husband, calling attacks on cultural institutions “as ludicrous as blaming the inventor of the mimeograph for email spam” in an April Washington Post op-ed. She argued that the Sackler name should remain on art institutions because none of the lawsuits “names Arthur or his heirs as defendants.”
Prosecutors allege that the Sacklers pushed Purdue to sell even more OxyContin even after learning how addictive the drug could be, and later created a moneymaking opportunity out of the crisis by selling treatments for opioid addiction. A mounting number of lawsuits have targeted Purdue at the federal, state and local levels.
As she outlined her plan to fight the opioid epidemic, Warren said she wanted to live in “[a]n America where when people like the Sacklers destroy millions of lives to make money, they don’t get museum wings named after them, they go to jail.”
Activists have continued to target several institutions that have benefited from Sackler family philanthropy amid widening public awareness of the family’s links to the health crisis.