Editorial: Tufts sets moral standards through cutting ties with Sacklers

For years, members of the Tufts community have demanded an examination of the relationship between the Sackler family and Tufts University due to the family’s clear role in the opioid epidemic. A Tufts Daily editorial from 2017 discussed the disconnect between Tufts’ accepting money from the Sacklers and simultaneously promoting resources for those struggling with opioids, calling on the university to review its relationship with the Sacklers. Editorials from earlier this year emphasized the sheer number of deaths the crisis caused both throughout the nation and in our neighboring communities of Medford and Somerville; from 2015 to 2017, 87 people from the two cities died of an overdose. 

On Dec. 5, Tufts gave its response to student, faculty and community input concerning this matter: The university announced that it would remove the Sackler name from all university buildings and programs, in essence, cutting all ties with the Sackler family. Within this announcement, Tufts provided the Stern report, which contains the results of former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Donald K. Stern and Attorney Sandy Remz’s investigation of the university’s relationship with the Sackler family. The announcement also stated that Tufts will “establish a $3 million endowment to support education, research, and civic engagement programs aimed at the prevention and treatment of addiction and substance abuse.” In order to acknowledge the family’s role in Tufts’ history, the university also intends to create an exhibit in its medical school aimed at maintaining transparency surrounding this matter, which would educate community members about Tufts’s relationship with the Sackler family as well as the current opioid epidemic. 

These decisions finally recognize the sentiments of the Tufts community as a whole, for they demonstrate that the university is not willing to remain complicit in the suffering of over a million nationwide. Tufts should be commended for taking this huge step that signals to the country and the world that it does not tolerate the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis. In doing so, Tufts demonstrates that it prioritizes moral integrity and remains an institution committed to making a positive impact. A New Yorker article revealed how the Sacklers’ company, Purdue Pharma, exacerbated the opioid crisis with its aggressive marketing of OxyContin, which led to overprescription of the highly addictive painkiller. Given Purdue Pharma’s role in destroying countless lives, Tufts fulfills a pressing moral obligation by severing ties with the company and its owners. This decision speaks volumes about Tufts’ institutional character. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts’ 5th District and Senator Ed Markey have praised Tufts’ decision, noting its moral significance and its importance to Tufts’ host communities, which have been affected by the opioid crisis.

As expected, the Sacklers object to Tufts’ decision to cut ties with the family, and they are currently looking at options to reverse Tufts’ decision, which the family’s attorney Daniel Connolly claims originates from unproven allegations. In spite of this negative reaction, Tufts’ decision deserves praise since the Sacklers’ immoral values, as stated in the university’s announcement, lie in clear contrast with the medical school’s mission statement: “We seek to foster the development of dedicated clinicians, scientists, public health professionals, and educators who will have a sustained positive impact on the health of individuals, communities, and the world.” 

As the university moves forward from its history with the Sacklers, it must sustain these efforts by acting upon the recommendations of the Stern Report. The report recommends the implementation of a strict donation policy and the formation of a University Gifts Policy Committee that would review significant donations to the university and determine potential conflicts-of-interest. To further prevent these issues, the report advises the creation of a comprehensive conflict-of-interest policy, particularly concerning academic settings. The report also urges the university to create a Compliance Officer position and to increase conflict-of-interest awareness in the Tufts community. Finally, it advocates for greater transparency in terms of those who fund programs and Tufts’ reporting procedure. These recommendations would give more credibility to the university’s method of accepting gifts and thus reduce the possibility of unjust institutions influencing university decisions. We look forward to the university’s follow-through on these recommendations, ensuring its status as a moral institution.

The Stern report also recommends that the university engages in a rigorous process to award honorary degrees. Tufts must not only follow this recommendation going forward but also deal with past mistakes concerning this matter by rescinding Arthur and Raymond Sackler’s honorary degrees. Only after doing so can Tufts fully detach from Sackler name. 

Through listening to Stern report recommendations and rescinding Sackler degrees, Tufts will follow the ethical standards put forth by their recent decisions: With these choices, Tufts is believed to be the first university to publicly rid their institution of the Sackler name, fully embracing fundamental values of transparency, responsibility and “do no harm.” We commend the university for listening to student voices, holding an authentic moral standard and taking these initial steps, and we look forward to seeing the university’s follow-through on Stern report recommendations and are hopeful about the repeal of the Sacklers’ honorary degrees. Tufts not only sets a moral example for the countless other universities and institutions tainted with the Sackler name but also for itself: Tufts must continue to follow this virtuous pattern through addressing other prominent university issues, such as divestment, with the same attention. This is only the start to a future of accountability and integrity.