Tel Aviv University Resists Pressure to Remove Sackler Name Over Opioid Crisis

Pressure mounts to remove the name of the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical company fueled the opioid crisis, from the school's medicine building

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The Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv.
The Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

How much longer will new students have to walk into the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and receive their education in a faculty named after the family that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans – and perhaps millions more people around the world?

If it was up to the university, it would probably be for a lot longer. Tel Aviv University cultivated a deep connection with the Sackler family over the years, and named dozens of schools, research institutes, endowed chairs and programs after them. The jewel in the crown is without a doubt the Sackler School of Medicine, from which some 200 new physicians graduate every year.

Yet over the years, the name Sackler has become synonymous with greed, distorting information, misleading doctors and health authorities, and encouraging the over-prescription of dangerous and addictive drugs. As the evidence, verdicts and exposure accumulated in recent years, the dissonance has grown between the role of the medical school – which is supposed to educate its students in the spirit of its ethical compass, the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm” (Primum non nocere) – and the actions of the Sackler family and its Purdue Pharma company, which it founded and ran, and which manufactured the addictive drug Oxycontin.

Tel Aviv University has elegantly waved away many questions on the matter over the years, mostly from the media and doctors’ groups, saying it was waiting for judicial decisions on the matter.

Now, the pressure has reached inside the institution too: In December 2020, dozens of faculty members and researchers from various schools at the university asked the president of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Ariel Porat, and the dean of the medical school, Prof. Ehud Grossman, to remove the Sackler name from the building, TheMarker has learned.

“We are requesting to know whether Tel Aviv University is continuing to receive donations from the Sackler family, and are shocked that the university has not yet removed the Sackler family name from the building on campus,” wrote the faculty members. “How can we educate students for ethics and professionalism, how will we educate the medical faculty and doctors to place saving human lives above any consideration of financial benefit, if Tel Aviv University continues to receive donations from the Sackler family and promotes their name?”

The harsh demand arrived in the wake of a judicial ruling made in November 2020, in which Purdue Pharma admitted that it sold narcotic medicines “without legitimate medical purpose.” The company also admitted to three criminal charges concerning its part in the opioid epidemic: Purdue admitted that it acted to stop the efforts to fight the crisis by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, provided deceptive information to the DEA to increase its production quotas, and paid doctors to write more prescriptions for its painkillers.

But the pressure from within did not work, and Porat himself doubled down. After originally showing some willingness to meet with representatives of the faculty that signed the letter, Porat wrote to one of the faculty members: “The matter is sensitive, the [university senate’s coordinating committee] has been updated about it, and I have no interest in involving faculty members in it... Any public involvement on the matter, and it does not matter what is done in the end, will greatly harm the university.”

A social question

Last week, the Israel Medical Association’s Ethics Board approached Grossman on the matter for the first time: “We are calling on you to bring up for debate and reexamination the question of whether it is appropriate that the medical school at the university will continue to bear the name of the Sackler family.”

Dr. Tami Karni, the chairwoman of the Ethics Board, told TheMarker that members of the Ethics Board supported a proposal to recommend to Tel Aviv University to change the name of the medical school.

The Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The scope of the damage caused by Purdue Pharma has become clear over the past few years: The company’s executives led the medical establishment and regulators – through the use of an intentional and systematic marketing program – to think that the powerful and addictive painkiller Oxycontin was safe and not addictive, and promoted it aggressively.

The Sackler family’s wealth is estimated at $11 billion, billions of which have been transferred to tax havens.

Alongside the family’s dubious business enterprises, they ran a flourishing philanthropic enterprise, donating enormous amounts to leading cultural and academic institution around the world – which in return reinforced the Sacklers’ image, in part by glorifying their name on buildings, institutions and in all sorts of media.

This is the accepted give and take of philanthropic relations, but in recent years, as the revelations of the enormity of the disaster caused by the company came out, the public response adjusted accordingly. Many institutions around the world began distancing themselves from the Sacklers, and one after another removed the family name from their buildings and publications – including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate in London and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In addition, New York University and Yale announced in 2019 that they would no longer accept donations from the family.

Protesters in France hold signs reading 'Shame on Sackler', part of a larger global push against institutional ties to the Sackler family.Credit: AFP/Stephane De Sakutin

In December 2019, Tufts University in Boston announced that it would remove the Sackler family name from its medical school, as well as from all programs and facilities contributed to the university by the family. The dean of Tufts medical school, Dr. Harris Berman, explained simply that the medical students didn’t want to enter a building bearing the Sackler name when they come for their medical education – and the school felt the name was no longer appropriate for the university’s educational goals and purpose.

A moral decision

Tel Aviv University has continued to ignore the numerous calls to break with the Sackler family and its actions, saying it is still waiting for judicial rulings in the lawsuits filed against the family.

But in addition to the precedent-setting admission by the company to the charges in November 2020, two months ago, a U.S. federal judge in New York approved Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy plan, in which the Sackler family members will give up their control over the company and donate $4.5 billion from their own pockets to provide compensation to thousands of plaintiffs for the damage they have caused to them. 

In addition, the public’s occupation with the Sacklers and their actions has grown in recent months, after the broadcast of three television series and the publication of two books about them in the United States – which exposed new details about how the mechanism behind the companies that led to the plague of addiction worked.

“The heads of the university and the medical school are waiting for the legal decisions as if this wasn’t a moral and ethical decision that the information published so far is not enough to make [a decision], as many other honorable institutions proved when they removed the family’s name,” said Hadas Ziv, the director of projects and ethics for the Physicians for Human Rights organization. “Their refusal to remove the Sackler family name, when the company they owned confessed to the crimes, casts a heavy shadow over the university in general, and the medical school in particular.” 

Tel Aviv University said that as opposed to what was reported in this article, the university is acting in a manner similar to that of other leading universities around the world, which until now have not removed the Sackler name. “Tel Aviv University continues to closely follow the matter, and will act according to the accepted rules.” The university said it meticulously replies to every request received on the matter.

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