Editorial: Sackler exposé brings Tufts to the hot seat

A recent Esquire exposé that rocked the Internet revealed the Tufts’ Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences has indirectly profited from thousands of opioid-induced deaths. The Sackler family, champions of art and philanthropy, are also behind the success of OxyContin, a leading painkiller that is over-prescribed, sold on a mass scale and one of the most common opioids involved in overdose deaths. The Sackler family led a ruthless marketing campaign, as detailed in Esquire and The New Yorker, that led to massive overprescriptions and is a significant factor in the current opioid crisis.

As founders of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers’ role in producing and marketing the fatally addictive drug as a common painkiller is largely responsible for their $14 billion fortune. That fortune has been spread worldwide, from Harvard and Yale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. Included among the Sackler empire is none other than Tufts, as our President Anthony Monaco bestowed an honorary doctorate to the late Raymond Sackler.

His praise for his benefactor provided the kicker for Esquire’s exposé: “It would be impossible to calculate how many lives you have saved, how many scientific fields you have redefined, and how many new physicians, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are doing important work as a result of your entrepreneurial spirit.” He concluded, “You are a world changer.” According to Tufts Now, 44 Americans die each day from overdoses of prescription painkillers. An opioid-addicted baby is born every half hour. 

Despite Tufts’ ties to the Sackler name, however, it is one of many institutions that was deeply misled by the family’s false marketing scheme. Tufts has, in fact, taken it upon itself to promote resources on the opioid crisis, including its Program on Opioid Risk Management and a research seminar series at the School of Medicine. The School of Dental Medicine is leading efforts in Massachusetts to better educate dentists on the consequences of prescribing opioids.

And yet, the Tufts administration still has not openly acknowledged the Sacklers’ role in fueling the opioid crisis. In light of the recent exposés, Tufts should publicly recognize its own complicity in receiving money tainted by the epidemic, resolving to take an active stance against it. In order to align its values, Tufts should change the name of its biomedical school to better reflect the mission of the institution. With any remaining funds from the Sackler family, Tufts should fund research grants for the opioid crisis and further support outreach programs for its victims.

Monaco and the Tufts Board of Trustees should revoke the honorary degree conferred on Raymond Sackler posthumously. There is past precedent for this. Bill Cosby, although never found guilty of sexual assault, had his honorary degree revoked by Tufts. Someone the university has honored has committed an egregious moral, if not illegal, offense, and the university must withdraw its support.

This is just another example of the suspect ways in which Tufts handles its finances behind closed doors. Tufts must be more vigilant and open about the ways in which it gets money, whom it names its institutions after and how it distributes funds. It can start by addressing the symbolic significance of its history with the Sackler family; though much damage has been done, it’s about time Tufts takes a stand.