Members of Harvard College Overdose Prevention and Education Students, a campus group dedicated to raising awareness of overdoses, urged the University to remove Arthur M. Sackler’s name from campus buildings in a proposal submitted Monday.
The 23-page proposal asks Harvard to name the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, part of the Harvard Museums of Art, and the Arthur M. Sackler Building, a faculty of arts and science building. The Sackler family’s company, Purdue Pharma, pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges relating to its marketing of the addictive painkiller OxyContin. The family members reached a $6 billion settlement in March that would resolve thousands of civil lawsuits for their role in the opioid epidemic.
In the proposal, the authors acknowledge that Arthur Sackler died nearly a decade before OxyContin hit the market, but they argue that the marketing practices he created fueled sales of the drug.
The proposal was submitted through the Faculty of Arts and Science’s naming process for spaces, programs, or other entities, which had a deadline for applications for the 2022-2023 academic year.
Last week, more than 300 Harvard affiliates signed a petition included in the proposal to express their support for removing the Sackler name from Harvard. Organizers promised to enter anyone who signed the petition into a lottery for $100.
If the proposal is approved, Harvard would follow in the footsteps of other prominent organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, which have removed the Sackler family name from their buildings.
The naming proposal argues that the name Sackler is “deeply connected to the opioid epidemic.”
“To many of us – students, staff and faculty – it is unacceptable and deeply offensive that we are represented by the name Sackler,” the proposal reads. “It is embarrassing and disturbing to know that our school, unlike almost every other cultural and educational institution that at one time displayed Sackler’s name, has decided to keep the name, despite the message of disrespect it sends to our community and to the world.”
A Harvard spokesperson confirmed that FAS had received the proposal and said it would move forward with the review process. A spokesperson for the Harvard Art Museums wrote that the request to name the building the Harvard Museum of Art would go through a similar review process under the aegis of the university, as the museum does not part of the FAS.
The museum spokesperson added that Harvard has no current plans to remove Arthur Sackler’s name from the building, noting that he died before OxyContin was developed and that his foundation does not fund the museum.
Still, the authors of the proposal alleged that Arthur Sackler was “far from blameless” in the opioid epidemic because of his role in developing medical marketing techniques they described as “deeply contrary to ethics”.
“Simply put, the philosophy of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma goes directly back to Arthur Sackler,” the proposal reads.
Spokespersons for Purdue Pharma and Jillian Sackler – Arthur Sackler’s widow – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Activists have previously called for the removal of the Sackler name from campus buildings. However, following protests in 2019, university president Lawrence S. Bacow said it would be “inappropriate” to remove the name.
Jay P. Garg ’24, the political chairman of HCOPES, said he hopes the now formalized FAS process to remove controversial names will be a more effective way to push for change than past protests.
“There’s a committee of people who are going to look at it and try to figure out how central this is to university life and how central this is to the history of this country, and what should be done about it. “, Garg said. “Hopefully the process itself will make it a bit easier to achieve something.”
Allan M. Brandt, professor of history of science and HCOPES faculty advisor, expressed support for the proposal in an emailed statement and said the Sackler name on campus buildings poses a “reputational risk important” for Harvard.
“I urge the University to act positively on this important and carefully presented request to name the buildings currently named for members of the Sackler family,” he wrote.
David M. Hogg ’23, whose tweet last month calling on Harvard to remove Sackler’s name garnered more than 10,000 likes and a thousand retweets, said he believed the presence of the Sackler family name on campus buildings was “terrible”.
Hogg added that Harvard’s mission, which he described as “creating better citizens and citizen-leaders,” does not match the “celebration” of the Sackler family.
“Citizen leaders help address injustices that come our way and recognize that we are not necessarily responsible for creating them ourselves,” Hogg said. “But we have a responsibility to settle them and find some form of justice. I think a first step in the right direction is to change the name, but it’s not the last step.