News this month that Tufts University would strip the Sackler family name from its campus health science buildings was met with widespread approval.
The elite institution was under enormous public pressure to cut ties with the Sacklers, infamously known as the owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that produced the addictive narcotic OxyContin and developed an aggressive campaign to market it across the U.S. in the 1990s. The result, partially attributable to the Sacklers' expansion of the drug's use, is the contemporary opioid crisis that led to 47,600 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 alone.
Tufts is far from the only university with Sackler connections — the Associated Press found that since 2013, at least two dozen institutions received donations from the family. Lawsuits and detailed accounts of the Sackler's role in the opioid epidemic have ramped up scrutiny on these colleges and universities, begging the question: Why wouldn't institutions, especially the well-off ones, follow Tufts' lead?
The answer is complex. Some universities might be bound to often-confidential agreements with donors that dictate how officials may use donations. Getting rid of a professorship, or a program or research initiative paid for with such funding would force college leaders to find new sources of money. That could prove difficult if the gift was particularly large. And institutions can't draw from their endowments unfettered.
Harvard University, for instance, has the largest academic endowment in the nation at $40.9 billion, but its president, Lawrence Bacow, earlier this year said it would be "inappropriate" to remove the Sackler name from campus facilities or return previous gifts from the family because they were largely made before OxyContin was developed.
Still, the public nature of universities' relationships with Purdue Pharma (the company has since filed for bankruptcy under potentially crushing legal debts), along with other recent episodes involving controversial donors, have forced universities and their fundraising arms to reconsider how closely they screen potential gifts and how they handle returning or redirecting money that may have been spent long ago.
"A majority of institutions are doing a much better job at vetting, and doing this before a gift is made," said Linda Durant, vice president of development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). "I would say the researchers and their staff are doing a much more in-depth dive of potential donors. … You can't predict future behavior, but you can at least do your due diligence and find out what have they done in the past."
How gift-giving works
Colleges have had systems for evaluating gifts, particularly high-dollar ones, for at least 25 years, Durant said. This process varies by institution and can involve any number of administrators, even the president.
At Johns Hopkins University, the provost leads a committee that discusses large donations, such as those that would endow a professorship or prescribe a name to a building, said Fritz Schroeder, the university's vice president for development and alumni relations. Hopkins has never accepted Sackler-affiliated money, he said.
The committee meets on an ad hoc basis and is made up of administrators and academics, some of whom are brought in as needed to help evaluate gifts related to their specialties, Schroeder said. If the university needed to vet a gift from an entity based outside of the U.S., then it would recruit a professor with a background in international relations, he said.
But for the last six months — during which Purdue Pharma's situation has escalated and colleges have caught flak for having taken donations from the late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sex trafficking underage girls — Schroeder said he and his equivalents at other institutions have been revisiting their policies and methods for appraising gifts. They are "mindful of the new scrutiny" on donations, he said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif said in a letter to the campus in August that it was looking at ways to possibly improve its processes for accepting donations after disclosing that the university received $800,000 in gifts from Epstein's foundations over two decades. He offered Epstein's victims "a profound and humble apology."
Universities that have accepted donations from problematic sources are also facing organized public pressure campaigns enabled by social media, said Peter McDonough, the vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education (ACE). Social platforms also allow many people to chime in on colleges' dealings with donors and may make the ire appear to be more widespread than it actually is, he noted.
A rising anger
The Sacklers — who, valued at around $13 billion, are one of the wealthiest families in America — have long been in the public eye and have faced criticism for their role in pushing OxyContin. However, the anger toward them and Purdue Pharma has intensified in the last several years. The company was the subject of more than 2,600 state and federal lawsuits over its role in the nationwide opioid crisis when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September.
The attention on the Sacklers then turned to entities they have supported financially for decades, namely colleges and museums. In August, when presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren announced her plan to mitigate the opioid epidemic, she also called for Harvard to scrub the Sackler name from campus buildings.
Tufts was under a particularly close watch because Maura Healey, Massachusetts' attorney general, had accused Purdue Pharma of contributing to the university's Pain Research, Education and Policy program as a way to peddle OxyContin and legitimize the drug. In March, Tufts President Tony Monaco called the allegations "deeply troubling," and pledged to review the relationship between the university and the company.
According to a review published by the university earlier this month, investigators didn't unearth evidence of "quid pro quo" deals between Purdue and Tufts, or that donations skewed research or academic programs. However, they did find that Purdue Pharma "intended to use the relationship with Tufts to advance its own interests." In a few cases, the report notes, "there is some evidence that it was successful in exercising influence, whether directly or indirectly."
The university announced it wouldn't return the Purdue Pharma donations but would instead form a $3 million endowment to support education and research efforts for preventing and treating drug addiction and abuse.
"A majority of institutions are doing a much better job at vetting, and doing this before a gift is made."
Vice president of development, Council for Advancement and Support of Education
In addition to Tufts, Brown University said in September it would reallocate a 2015 donation from La Fondation Sackler meant for arts programs to Rhode Island organizations that support treatment and research of opioid addiction. The university has not publicly disclosed the exact amount of the gift, but it's at least $1 million.
Education Dive contacted six elite institutions that have received Sackler money to inquire whether they intend to return those donations or reconsider the Sackler name on campus buildings.
Stanford University and MIT did not respond. Reif said in his August letter pertaining to the Epstein donations that MIT would donate $800,000, the same amount Epstein gave to the university, to a charity benefiting survivors of sexual abuse.
Cornell, Yale and Columbia universities all said they no longer accept donations from Sackler family philanthropies but did not address past donations in their emailed statements to Education Dive.
Harvard wrote in an emailed statement that it does not plan to remove the Sackler name from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and that the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation does not fund the museum in any way.
Yale houses the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Both Columbia and Cornell have established Sackler Institutes for Developmental Psychobiology.
For the future
Colleges' agreements with donors have grown more complicated, ACE's McDonough said. The gift-givers of yesteryear could likely iron out the details of their donations in half-page letters, while now they often involve multi-page documents loaded with legal clauses. These negotiations will also likely require colleges to have tough conversations to carve out provisions that would let them give back a gift, or redirect it, if necessary to protect their reputations, he said.
A college that wants to redirect a gift would need to review the terms of its agreement to determine whether that would be permitted, McDonough said. Institutions cannot simply replace the funding for large gifts either, he said. Even colleges and universities with hefty endowments restrict how much they can spend from them in any given year, particularly considering many wealthy institutions rely on investment income from those endowments to fund their operating expenses.
McDonough said he was concerned whether institutions in financial distress would be able to turn away money. Even if the funding isn't controversial, it might not be focused on institutional priorities. He gave the example of a small, public college that is offered a donation to launch a particular program that the university had not planned on launching.
"For all the good intentions, a gift that has some level of restrictions that in another era might have been turned away, that might have been intolerable or misaligned with institutional priorities or culture, might be accepted now with the real practical reality of reduced state funding," he said.
For now, colleges and universities are attempting to be more astute and investigate donors' backgrounds.
"There's not a set handbook in these situations."
Vice president for development and alumni relations, Johns Hopkins University
At Johns Hopkins, frontline fundraisers are being trained in methods as simple as doing Google searches before they sit down face-to-face with wealthy potential donors, Schroeder said. The university keeps data about which donors are most likely to give a gift of more than $1 million, which usually is prefaced by at least 20 smaller donations.
If fundraising staff members are concerned about a donor, they can flag the problem with Schroeder, who along with colleagues such as the general counsel, will make a decision about whether to accept the gift.
"There's not a set handbook in these situations," Schroeder said. "The more that we can illuminate good practice, and have good discipline in these moments, the better off we are."