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Sackler family donations to U. funded by OxyContin sales

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the University Art Museum is filled with beautiful relics of Asian art: Neolithic pottery and jade, ceramic vessels and bronze figurines, terra-cotta sculptures, and coffin boards from an ancient tomb.

But the Sackler name displayed on a sign in the gallery has recently been tainted by press coverage exposing the family’s role in promoting OxyContin, a leading culprit in the nationwide opioid abuse and overdose crisis that takes nearly 1,000 American lives each week.


“What is the moral threshold Princeton should use to decide whether they will accept a donation from someone?” asked Lee Garth ’87, a principal training engineer at the computer software company The MathWorks Inc. “In the long run, I think we need an open, public discussion about this.”

The privately held company Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, engaged in a number of practices — such as covering up initial studies and encouraging doctors to prescribe OxyContin for only moderate pain — that downplayed the drug’s addictive properties while making Mortimer and Raymond Sackler billionaires, according to an article in The New Yorker. Arthur Sackler, Mortimer and Raymond’s brother, was no longer involved with the family’s pharmaceutical company when it launched OxyContin in 1996. In the 1960s, however, he was at the forefront of a new approach to medical advertising that encouraged doctors to over-prescribe addictive tranquilizers such as Valium, even for patients that did not display any symptoms, according to The New Yorker.

“Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler,” said Allen Frances, the former chair of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, in the New Yorker article. 

In the 1990s, Purdue Pharma was guided by the Sackler family’s direct involvement: Esquire reported that family members filled the company’s executive board and actively led its daily affairs. During this time, Mortimer, Raymond, and Raymond’s son Richard applied Arthur’s 1960s marketing techniques to the promotion of OxyContin to market an addictive substance as a treatment for a wide range of symptoms. The company purposely misled physicians to believe that the drug’s delayed absorption effect — slow release into the bloodstream — reduces its addictive liabilities.

The living members of the Sackler family (Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer have passed away) refuse to speak publicly about the benefits they have received from the sale of OxyContin, according to Esquire. The New Yorker reports that Arthur M. Sackler described Purdue's stance on the opioid crisis as a matter of individual responsibility to avoid addiction rather than the responsibility of the company to not market addictive drugs. 

As the Sacklers grew wealthy, they began donating to “blue-chip institutions such as Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton,” according to Garth, which intertwined the family name with the reputations of prestigious centers for art and education. Over time, the private corporate underworld of Purdue Pharma was translated into distinguished and visible patronage: Sackler Wings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, an Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim, and similar installments at dozens of universities.


In addition to the gallery at the art museum, the University hosts the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Lecture in Astrophysics, established by a donation in 1988.

Vice President for Advancement Kevin Heaney said that the University promised at the time to honor the gift and will carry out that promise.

In March 2016, the Board of Trustees adopted the report of its Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee, created in response to student protests that Wilson’s legacy was problematic in light of his racist beliefs and policies. In response to this report, the Council of the Princeton University Community established a Committee on Naming to solicit ideas for naming buildings and spaces that would “recognize individuals who would bring a more diverse presence to the campus,” according to the committee’s website.

However, the committee focuses on naming “buildings or other spaces not already named for historical figures or donors.”

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Heaney wrote in an email that donors to the University are given naming privileges, subject to approval on a case-by-case basis by the Board of Trustees. 

“This naming policy does not pass judgment one way or another on the lives of the donors; it expresses only our gratitude and respect for the act of donating funds,” Heaney wrote.

Heaney added in an interview that it was “safe to say the University would have considered differently” accepting the Sacklers’ donations had they known about the family’s underhanded pharmaceutical dealings.

“I understand that it's tricky when it comes to institutions like museums where the person [a gallery] is named after gave the money to build that wing of the museum,” said Beth Wang ’18. “Ideally it should be changed, but the acknowledgement that the only reason the room is there is because of this really problematic person makes it less easy to take the name away.”

Wang, who is an art and archaeology major, pointed out that the Sacklers’ donations have allowed for significant positive contributions to the field of art, even though their money came from a dishonorable source. For example, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is a space dedicated to the support of feminist art, which is a realm of historical scholarship that hasn’t received much recognition, Wang said. Elizabeth is Arthur Sackler’s daughter.

“As an art and archaeology major, who has probably walked through this Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on numerous occasions without even being cognizant of this person and how he gained whatever capital he’s been able to then donate to the university, I have unfortunately been complicit in benefitting from and even implicitly supporting this Arthur M. Sackler and his legacy of ‘questionable practices,’” Isaiah Nieves ’19 wrote in an email.

“There’s such a 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,” Wang added.

Erin Firestone, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations for the University Art Museum, could not be reached for comment.