Oxford university ended its relationship with the Sacklers on Monday after a Financial Times investigation into its continued ties with the wealthy family led academics and students to call for sweeping reforms.
The decision to cut social ties and remove the Sackler name from buildings, spaces and staff positions comes at the end of a review instigated by new vice-chancellor Irene Tracey, a professor of anaesthetic neuroscience.
Most other prominent arts and academic institutions severed relationships with the billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma between 2019 and 2022, after public outcry over their role in the deadly US opioids crisis, which is estimated to have claimed more than half a million lives.
For years, Purdue aggressively marketed OxyContin, its prescription painkiller, downplaying its addictive qualities while netting tens of billions of dollars in revenue.
Institutions such as the Louvre Museum in Paris and the National Portrait Gallery in London turned down donations or removed the Sackler name from buildings in 2019. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate gallery group did so in 2022.
Oxford came under pressure for bucking this trend when the FT revealed it had continued to court the Sacklers over the past two years, extending exclusive event invitations and accepting donations even as members of the family who own Purdue negotiated a multibillion-dollar bankruptcy settlement over their role in the epidemic.
When asked by the FT whether social ties had been included in the review’s outcomes, not detailed in Monday’s public announcement, the university confirmed that “the Sackler Family has agreed to forego its membership of the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors and will therefore no longer be invited to events”.
The FT’s investigation exposed how in April last year, Theresa Sackler, third wife of the late Mortimer Sackler, the former chief executive and co-owner of Purdue, was an “external attendee” at a private viewing of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race. She was invited as a member of the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors, a prestigious group with the highest level of access to the chancellor, vice-chancellor and other senior university figures.
Later that same year, Sackler was invited to the annual Ashmolean gala dinner in September. According to a lawsuit she is identified in, Sackler was a member of Purdue’s board from 1993 to 2018.
Oxford said the Sackler name would be removed from iconic buildings such as the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Libraries, as well as several research positions at the Ashmolean, which the FT’s investigation revealed had received previously pledged funding as recently as June 2021.
“It’s a very clear statement from the university and I think they’ve made the right decision,” said Dorothy Bishop, emeritus professor of developmental neuropsychology and honorary fellow of St John’s College.
The university said donations already received from the Sackler family and their trusts would be retained “for their intended educational purposes” but that no new donations had been received since 2019.
The university said the outcome had the “full support” of the Sackler family. It added that the Sackler name would be retained on the Clarendon Arch and the Ashmolean’s donor board “for the purposes of historical recording of donations to the university”.
“The university has listened to necessary ethical concerns about the origins of the money — the death of half a million — and finally responded to criticism coming from its academic and local community,” said Olivia Durand, director of Uncomfortable Oxford, which runs tours highlighting the city’s legacies of imperialism, inequality and discrimination.