Oxford university stuck with Sacklers as opioid deaths led others to cut ties
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Oxford university has continued to court the Sackler family over the past two years, bucking a trend for institutions to cut ties with the owners of the company at the heart of the deadly US opioid epidemic.
Documents seen by the Financial Times — including letters, bank statements and event attendee lists from 2020 to late last year — reveal how the elite university has extended exclusive invitations to a Sackler family member and accepted funds from Sackler family charities as it maintained the Sacklers’ naming rights on university buildings and fellowships.
They cover a period during which members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma have negotiated a multibillion-dollar bankruptcy settlement over their role in an epidemic estimated to have claimed more than half a million lives since 1999.
For years, aggressive marketing of OxyContin, the family firm’s prescription painkiller, played down its addictive qualities while netting the company tens of billions of dollars in revenue.
The documents relate to departments and colleges across the collegiate university, including the Ashmolean Museum, the university’s museum of art and archaeology, and Worcester College.
In January 2020, a few months after Purdue filed for bankruptcy, Lord James Lupton, chair of the board of visitors at the Ashmolean, wrote to Dame Theresa Sackler, a former longstanding board member of Purdue, who is identified in several of the lawsuits.
“As the new face on the board, I am ‘all ears’ to the views of our most important patrons and supporters, and I very much hope that you will contribute your ideas over the next few weeks,” Lupton said. In his letter, he shared his telephone number at the House of Lords and his email at Greenhill investment bank, where he is a senior adviser.
In what appears to be an inside joke, Lupton added in pencil: “PS: As you might imagine, I think I am going to love this rôle.”
Sackler, a UK-based former schoolteacher, is the third wife of the late Mortimer Sackler, the former chief executive and co-owner of Purdue. According to a lawsuit she is identified in, Sackler was a member of Purdue’s board from 1993 until 2018. As chair of the Sackler Trust and a trustee of the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, she is well known in philanthropic circles.
The Sacklers’ two UK-based charities have given more than £10mn to Oxford since 1991. Most notably, the family funded the building of the Sackler Library, part of the university’s renowned Bodleian Libraries.
In 2021 the Oxford Development Trust, which seeks to “secure the advancement of education” at the university, received £50,332 from the Sackler Trust to fund previously pledged research positions held by Worcester College and the Ashmolean. The university has not applied for any fresh donations since 2019.
The first wave of organisations to refuse donations or remove the family name from buildings — including the Louvre Museum in Paris and the National Portrait Gallery in London — came in 2019 after protests led by US artist Nan Goldin.
They were joined over the course of 2021 and 2022 by institutions including the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and Imperial College London in the UK, and Yale University in the US.
Many that had stated they would not remove the Sackler name from their buildings — such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate gallery group — have since backpedalled and done so.
Other cultural institutions that have maintained ties to the Sacklers said this was now under review. The University of Cambridge, which has not accepted any funding from the Sacklers since 2015, said it intended to “remove the Sackler name from any relevant funds that still exist, as well as from university spaces”. Royal Museums Greenwich said Dame Theresa Sackler’s name would be removed from their list of “major supporters” this year.
In 2021, King’s College London accepted £750,000 from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The university has so far retained the Sackler name on its neurodevelopmental disorders institute, which the donations helped fund.
“This represents a final extension of existing funding to support ongoing work to understand neurodevelopmental disorders. No additional applications for funding from the Sackler family are planned and naming rights are routinely being considered in light of that,” King’s College said.
At Oxford, Dame Theresa Sackler’s access to exclusive social networks has not been withdrawn, underscoring the legacy of soft power that decades of philanthropy can buy.
In April last year, she was an “external attendee” at a private viewing of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race. The event was hosted onboard the Erasmus, by the chancellor and vice-chancellor of the university. The guest list for the event, compiled by the University of Oxford Development Office, noted that Sackler was invited as a member of the “Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors”.
Those in this prestigious group are given the highest level of access to the chancellor, vice-chancellor and other senior university figures. Other members, who meet at “special events” twice a year, include the Rothermere Foundation and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In September, Sackler was also invited to the annual Ashmolean gala dinner.
The Sackler name remains emblazoned on many buildings in Oxford. As well as the Sackler Library, there are two Sackler galleries in the Ashmolean, and Mortimer Sackler’s name is inscribed on the Clarendon Arch.
The Sacklers also retain “naming rights” to multiple academic positions: the Sackler Keeper of Antiquities, the Sackler Education Officer, and the Sackler Research Fellow at the Ashmolean, as well as science fellowships.
Megan Kapler, an activist at Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, the campaign group founded by Goldin to target the Sacklers’ “toxic philanthropy”, said: “For institutions to maintain the Sackler name is to be complicit in their death toll, full stop. And that also goes for including them in their social circles.
“We would call on Oxford to pay attention to the origin of the money of their benefactors and also the social and historical implications of keeping people like Theresa Sackler in this court.”
The boat race event took place one month after the Sackler owners of Purdue Pharma and US states agreed on a $6bn settlement to resolve litigation alleging they fuelled the opioid crisis. The Sacklers have said they “sincerely regret” that OxyContin became part of the crisis but strongly dispute the allegations that have been made about them.
Oxford said it was “currently reviewing the situation regarding this relationship and the way it is recognised. A decision is due to be made in the coming months.” The process began formally last month.
A spokesperson for the family member trustees of the Sackler Trust said: “We have supported numerous institutions at Oxford over many years and want to help ensure that they can pursue their missions without distraction or unwarranted pressure. Their continued success matters greatly to us, and we are of course open to a constructive discussion with Oxford about how our family can best help achieve that objective.”
Lupton did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Madison Marriage