Reckoning: Has the Debate Over Toxic Sackler Gifts Reached a Tipping Point?

The Guggenheim is among the institutions under fire for not returning sackler donations.

The Guggenheim is among the institutions under fire for not returning sackler donations.

The debate over how organizations should handle donations from members of the Sackler family has intensified in recent weeks after the revelation that specific individuals like Richard, former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, played a far more extensive role in promoting OxyContin than previously known.

Protestors stormed the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) demanding the institutions return donations and remove their names from their buildings. In response, the Met issued carefully worded press releases saying administrators will review its policies while bracing for further disruption. With more revelations about the Sacklers’ role in the marketing of OxyContin almost guaranteed to emerge, a few questions come to mind.

First, Purdue Pharma’s role in catalyzing the opioid epidemic is well known. Why haven’t organizations yet formulated a coherent approach to addressing Sackler money? Second, the new round of revelations is particularly chilling; what will it take for recipients to scrub the Sackler name off buildings, return the money, or donate it to organizations battling opioid addition? And three, in a philanthropic climate in which private dollars continue to reshape American society, are billionaire donors and their gilded recipients testing the patience of an increasingly restless and angry American public?

The answer to the third question is yes, according to Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Speaking to the Washington Post, he said the issue of toxic donors is “more difficult and more salient now because we are more aware of built-in inequities. Putting people’s names on a building in today’s atmosphere seems to be giving people of privilege something extra. We’re more allergic to elevating some people over others.”

I’ll explore Pasic’s premise in greater detail momentarily. But let’s first begin with a quick refresher on the Sacklers.

The Sackler Brothers: A Brief Overview

The Sackler family has come under fire since the Sackler brothers—Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond—transformed Purdue Pharma into a pharmaceutical giant through deceptive marketing techniques, and in the case of Mortimer and Raymond, aggressively pushed the sale of OxyContin, which contributed to the opioid epidemic. But a closer look at the backstory suggests that it would be unfair to paint the entire Sackler family with too broad a brush.

Jillian Sackler, in a statement to the Washington Post on February 13, said:

It is a gross injustice to blame my late husband, Arthur Sackler, for the public health crisis surrounding opioids. Arthur was never involved in Purdue Pharma, a company owned by his brothers Mortimer and Raymond and their families; he had nothing to do with OxyContin. This drug came onto the market nearly a decade after Arthur’s death in 1987. He never profited from it, nor is his estate named in any lawsuit. Not a penny of his philanthropy derived from the sale of OxyContin, and it is a disservice to the institutions he founded to suggest otherwise. Arthur would be horrified to see how this drug has been misused and would be working to find solutions.

Yet Sackler’s statement glosses over relevant historical context. OxyContin’s success didn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, the drug flourished thanks to marketing tactics pioneered by Arthur years earlier, which included aggressively selling to doctors and providing free trips to pain-management seminars. Commentators like Politico's Sam Quinones argues that Arthur’s “marketing strategies were essential” to the drug’s astonishing success. The New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe called the tactics “sometimes blatantly deceptive.”

On the other hand, artist Natalie Frank, writing in ArtNet, finds this line of reasoning to be unfair. “Tracing the marketing of Oxycontin and the current opioid crisis to Arthur Sackler's innovations in the field is akin to blaming Einstein for the use of the atomic bomb.”

Arthur’s role in Purdue’s fortunes, however indirect, underscores the varying degrees of nuance at play surrounding the issue of tainted donations. And since he had no direct involvement in the marketing of the drug, organizations haven’t erased Arthur’s name from the history books. For example, representatives at the Smithsonian, which previously received $50 million in donated work and $4 million for a museum, said it had no plans to remove Arthur’s name or return the donated money or art.

But what about his brothers and their heirs? Do they get a similar pass?

After Arthur’s death, Mortimer and Raymond bought out his shares of Purdue Pharma from his estate. Oxycontin was introduced in 1995. The company was subsequently accused of playing down the addictive nature of the drug, and in 2007, after the guilty pleas of Purdue Pharma executives, the company agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other payments, while three executives agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million.

Mortimer and Raymond were not personally accused of wrongdoing, nor was Richard Sackler, Raymond's son, who became Purdue Pharma president in 1999 and co-chairman in 2003. Mortimer died in 2010; Raymond in 2017. 

New Developments

In my previous post on Sackler donations, I wrote that we may never truly know if Richard, Mortimer or Raymond were directly complicit in Purdue Pharma's OxyContin-related misdeeds, since, thanks to a non-prosecution agreement negotiated during the 2007 settlement, most new criminal litigation against Purdue can only address activity that occurred after that date.

But I, along with many others, had doubts. After all, Purdue Pharma was a private company tightly controlled by the Sackler family. OxyContin was its cash cow, generating some $35 billion in revenue. How could its executive not know about its highly addictive nature or the machinations of the company’s finely tuned marketing strategy?

Fast-forward to January 1, 2019. A filing in a Massachusetts lawsuit contained dozens of internal Purdue Pharma documents suggesting the Sackler family knew the company routinely failed to notify authorities that OxyContin was being abused and sold illegally. The lawsuit also argues that the Sackler family knew that putting patients on high dosages of OxyContin for long periods increased the risks of serious side effects. Nonetheless, the company promoted higher dosages because stronger pain pills brought the company and the Sacklers the maximum profit.

For example, when Purdue Pharma started selling OxyContin in 1996, Dr. Richard Sackler said the launch of the drug “will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” Sackler’s comments, plus other internal emails, are contained in newly public portions of the Massachusetts lawsuit.

The filing, according to the New York Times, is “the first evidence that appears to tie the Sacklers to specific decisions made by the company about the marketing of OxyContin.”

Surely these developments are the straw that will break the camel’s back for recipients of Sackler cash, right? Not quite, said Indiana University’s Pasic, implying that the idea of an organization returning a donation from the Richard and Beth Sackler Foundation is akin to splitting the atom. “What do you do?” he asks. “Decide these are the bad Sacklers, these are the OK Sacklers?”

Why yes, in fact. That’s precisely what you do.

“No Easy Answers?”

In a separate piece looking at tainted donations in the higher education space, I quoted Robert O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia, who argued that schools should consider the extent to which the recipient's alleged actions come into “significant conflict” with the university's ideals. The principle can also be applied to museums and other nonprofit recipients of a disgraced donor’s largesse.

It can be difficult to flesh out airtight policies—how does an organization define “significant conflict?”—but it hasn’t stopped organizations from refusing or returning tainted donations.

In lieu of a Wall Street Journal article detailing allegations that Steve Wynn sexualized the workplace and pressured employees to perform sex acts, the University of Iowa, which received $25 million from the casino magnate for a vision research institute in 2013, didn’t issue a tepidly worded press release. It removed Wynns’ name from the institute and left $5 million in due money on the table. Nor, I suspect, did administrators at the University of Southern California have a profound existential crisis when they decided to refuse a $5 million gift from Harvey Weinstein.

In addition, many of these organizations don’t “need” these toxic donations in the first place. According to the New York Times, the Guggenheim received a paltry $2.49 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation. If the lawyers can iron out the details, why not scrub the Sackler name, donate the money to an opioid recovery group like Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) and dial up a trusty (and non-toxic) donor to cover the gap?

Indiana University’s Pasic says there are “no easy answers” when it comes to formulating a process for returning Sackler gifts, but the many organizations that have returned problematic money seemed to have figured out how to handle these situations.

We’re also seeing instances in which an organization keeps tainted donations but makes a coherent (though perhaps unconvincing) argument defending its position.

Lobbying firms, companies and businessmen including Richard Branson recently cut or suspended ties with the Saudi government in response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The same couldn’t be said for universities. One such school was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose president, L. Rafael Reif, commissioned an internal review to determine if the school should maintain ties to Saudi Arabia.

The report did not detail the total amount of money it receives from organizations and individuals tied to the Saudi government. And while it did acknowledge “the large-scale violations of political, civil and human rights” in Saudi Arabia, its authors concluded that MIT should maintain ties because terminating its engagement wouldn’t have “any meaningful ameliorative effect” on the kingdom.

In early February, Reif published an open letter providing greater context into the review’s findings. While the letter may not assuage the concerns of every human rights advocate demanding schools return Saudi money, its publication is, at the very least, a refreshing example of transparency and accountability in the cloistered and insular world of big-time philanthropy. Here’s hoping recipients of Sackler money such as the Met follow Reif’s lead.

And what about the Met? Daniel Weiss, its president and chief executive, said, “The Sackler family has been connected with the Met for more than a half-century” after developments in lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and members of the family in mid-January. “The family is a large extended group and their support of the Met began decades before the opioid crisis. The Met is currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”

“Impunity for the Very Rich”

Weiss’ comments suggest that at least thus far, the pain threshold that Sackler recipients are willing to endure varies. The calculus is a mix of fungible factors including which Sackler family member gave the money, the gravity of the alleged discretions pertaining to specific individuals, and while few may admit it publicly, the size of the donation in question.

Remember: Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misleading regulators about OxyContin all the way back in 2007. Yet this didn’t compel universities, medical centers and museums to return Sackler cash.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, this is understandable. Though everyone knew where the Sacklers’ wealth came from, neither Raymond, Richard nor Mortimer were accused of wrongdoing despite presiding over OxyContin’s astonishing growth. The opioid epidemic hadn’t reached crisis levels that we’re seeing today. And with the Great Recession still in its formative stages, the public had yet to turn against unaccountable society-shaping plutocrats.

Needless to say, things have changed in the last 12 years.

The opioid crisis now claims over 130 lives per day. Social media has emerged as a powerful tool enabling activists to expose the misdeeds of toxic donors. And with philanthropy expanding its reach across American society, “concerns about income inequality have challenged the very notion of allowing billionaires to gild their reputations by making tax-deductible gifts that result in their names being etched in stone,” writes the Post’s Peggy McGlone.

McGlone is on to something. One of the big knocks against modern mega-philanthropy is this idea of “elites supporting elites.” Rather than direct their billions toward areas of legitimate need, mega-donors, critics argue, simply double down on the institutions that bolster their wealth and prestige. We see this argument everywhere, from how major journalism foundations award funding, to billionaire mega-gifts to affluent Ivy League institutions while community colleges and historically black universities scrounge for change under the couch.

“This is part of a larger picture of impunity for the very rich in this moment,” said L.A. Kauffman, speaking at an anti-Sackler protest at the Guggenheim. “We see museums and cultural institutions glorifying the very rich and we also see them giving them positions of power.” This echoes similar lines of criticism concerning philanthropists like the Mercer family, the Koch brothers, Stephen Schwarzman, and many others.

We’ll probably be learning a lot more about Sackler family members’ transgressions in the months ahead, as various lawsuits snake their way through the court system. Most recently, in mid-January, the widows and descendants of Raymond and Mortimer were added to a $500 million lawsuit filed by the City of New York in order to offset the costs of the opioid crisis. The January Massachusetts filing may turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, organizations like the Met have been “engaging” in “further review” regarding this issue for close to a year, now. Maybe future revelations will compel museums to return Sackler money; then again, maybe not. Either way, at some point, organizations should clearly articulate the reasoning behind their decisions, especially if they decide to keep cash from a Sackler directly implicated in OxyContin’s deceptive marketing. This isn’t too much to ask.

Photographer Nan Goldin, who says she started PAIN after she became addicted to OxyContin, has spent the past year calling on arts institutions to remove the Sackler name, publicly denounce the family, and refuse future gifts. Upon announcing the latest Met demonstration via Instagram on February 8, she wrote, "We’ve been knocking on their doors for a year and not a single museum has denounced the Sacklers, taken down their name, or publicly refused their funding. Time’s up.”