The Sackler family, donors of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the University Museum, has recently been surrounded in controversy for their involvement in the opioid industry and the development of OxyContin. The emergence of reports describing the family’s role in promoting the drug, prominent in the opioid crisis that causes over 1,000 American fatalities a week, has resurfaced debates at the University regarding donor stipulations and moral obligations.
Some argue that the name should be removed from the gallery in order to separate the University from the controversy. On one hand, displaying the name condones ethically questionable business behavior. But on the other, the art can be enjoyed independently of the donor. Student Beth Wang ‘18 shared her experience of “dissonance between what the Sackler name means to the actual art in the center and this greater context of what the Sackler family is and what they stands for,” as an Art and Architecture major frequently benefiting from the donation.
Though the source of the money is morally questionable, the gallery should keep its name as part of a commitment to the donor, and the art should be enjoyed for its intellectual value independent of the donor’s history. The art can be appreciated for what it is with an acknowledgment but not an emphasis on how it came to exist on our campus.
In his Practical Ethics class, Peter Singer confronted a similar problem of appreciating the contributions of a morally problematic figure. He issued a disclaimer at the beginning of a lecture discussing works by Thomas Pogge, a philosopher recently accused of sexual assault. Singer explained that the class would continue to analyze Pogge’s ideas and appreciate his intellectual contributions. He emphasized the importance of using Pogge’s work to learn and discuss without passing judgment on his character. In this way, ethicist Peter Singer practiced this sort of separation between contributor and contribution.
Just as analyzing Pogge’s texts can be evaluated separately from the author, utilizing the Sacklers’ contribution can be separated from the actions and legacy of the family. Some may argue that keeping the name condones the family’s actions and makes the University and visitors complicit in their moral transgressions. However, regardless of the name of the gallery, the reality remains that it came into existence because of their contribution. If enjoying the gallery were morally problematic with the Sackler name, the ethical evaluation should not change with a change in naming. Visitors enjoy the contribution of the Sackler family regardless if it is labeled as such.
But another argument may express concern for the presence of the name itself as it honors and applauds the troublesome business decisions of the Sackler family. Perhaps the label imputes culpability to the University for endorsing and publicly promoting the family. But, unlike buildings named after historical figures, the gallery is named as part of a donation. In this way, the gallery is inextricably linked to the Sacklers and their fortune.
For these two reasons, removing the name is not a viable solution. The retroactive removal would do little to change the University’s involvement with the donation and the donors, and it would be an unfair breach of commitment to the donor stipulations.
Rather than retroactively questioning the donations that have generously built our campus, the University should focus on evaluating future donations. While the problematic history of the Sackler family should be acknowledged, it is far from the only relevant consideration in the use of the gallery.
As students, how can we expresses contempt for this kind of donation of morally “dirty” money? I argue that enjoying the existing donation does not make students morally complicit in the donor’s actions. As we walk through the gallery and appreciate the art, we do not directly applaud the financial success of the donor. We appreciate the donor’s contribution and choice to donate, but the art itself is not tainted by the moral wrongs of the donor. The effort to trace the moral pathway of every donation would surely result in discomfort for the use of many buildings; many prominent figures have transgressed at some point. Imagine a Supreme Court confirmation hearing-style process to accept any donation.
This stance does not declare the acceptance of donations as wholly unproblematic but instead considers this sort of retroactive moral evaluation impractical. Had the donation been in the public health department, we may have reason to question the correlation because of the direct connection. On the other hand, the gallery is more morally ambiguous: the art and artists can be applauded and discussed without reference to their donor. However, we as students can impress on the administration the importance of thoroughly vetting future donations to prevent our University from endorsing figures that we students find morally problematic.
For example, the campus group Princeton Private Prison Divest consistently protests the investment of the University’s endowment in private prisons and urges the administration to take responsibility for their financial endorsement of morally wrong businesses. This group asserts that our profiting from one of the “most pressing and severe human rights crises in the United States” is “clearly in opposition to [University] values.” The student group collected a consensus of students through a referendum, 89 percent voting to divest out of 30 percent of the undergraduate population, to express to the administration that the student body resents our complicit involvement in these immoral funds.
Art and archaeology major Isaiah Nieves ’19 considers the he has “unfortunately been complicit in benefiting from and even implicitly supporting” the family by exploring the gallery. I disagree that the use of the gallery, especially without knowledge of the donor’s history, involves visitors in the moral controversy. Appreciating the art does not pass judgment on the morality of its donor. Using this donation as a reference, the administration should continue to vet donors and consider the moral implications of involvement with funds. As students, we should emphasize our concern with this issue and hold the administration accountable for future donation acceptances. It is a reality that the gallery exists as a result of problematic funding. But the name should remain as a commitment to the donor stipulation and the contribution should be utilized without visitor remorse.
Jessica Nyquist is a junior in computer science from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.