Oxford university urged to review policy in wake of outcry over Sackler ties

Students and academics at Oxford university have called for a sweeping review of policies around its relationship with donors, following revelations that the elite institution courted the Sackler family even after others cut ties.

A Financial Times investigation on Monday showed that over the past two years Oxford extended exclusive invitations to a Sackler family member and accepted funds from a Sackler family charity as it maintained the Sacklers’ naming rights on university buildings and fellowships.

During that time members of the Sackler family who own the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma negotiated a multibillion-dollar bankruptcy settlement over their role in the deadly US opioid epidemic.

Speaking to the FT, more than 10 Oxford students and members of staff expressed outrage over the findings, while the student union said it would be “raising [them] with the university”.

Almost all said the university should launch a broad review extending beyond the Sacklers to assess current and former donors’ access to senior university figures and exclusive events, as well as their naming rights on buildings and academic posts.

“They need to come up with a new standardised policy on who they invite to what . . . in consultation with a number of groups across the university and city,” said Paula Larsson, a PhD student and co-founder of Uncomfortable Oxford, which runs tours highlighting the city’s legacies of imperialism, inequality and discrimination.

Most other major cultural institutions around the world have already severed ties with the Sacklers, removing their name from buildings and rejecting donations following public outcry about the family’s role in the opioid crisis and protests led by US artist Nan Goldin.

Dorothy Bishop, emeritus professor of developmental neuropsychology and honorary fellow of St John’s College, said it was “difficult to understand why Oxford has not taken any action, given that so many other institutions have now recognised that this is a very problematic relationship to have”.

“I was strongly influenced by reading Empire of Pain and am disappointed that Oxford has not followed other institutions in dissociating themselves from the Sacklers,” she added, referring to US journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s book about the family and their company’s addictive painkiller OxyContin.

Many people said they hoped that the appointment of Irene Tracey, a professor of anaesthetic neuroscience, as Oxford’s vice-chancellor in January would encourage the university to embrace their call for change. Tracey is a specialist in pain, a topic she teaches to undergraduate medical students.

“I would like to think that my institution goes with the ethics rather than the money,” said Bishop. “The new vice-chancellor is a good person to ask to tackle that.”

At an introductory “conversation with the vice-chancellor” for university staff on Wednesday afternoon, multiple questions submitted via an online chatbox about Oxford’s relationship with the Sacklers went unanswered, according to two attendees. The organisers said outstanding questions would be answered after the event.

Oxford said Tracey had, in her first week as vice-chancellor, approved an “in-depth review and evaluation of all aspects of the relationship between the university and the Sackler Family and their trusts”, which has been informed by students and staff.

“As a leading neuroscientist, Professor Tracey is very aware of the opioid issue and therefore understands why there is such a depth of feeling from within the university community and more broadly,” it said, adding that her “first priority has been to meet as many staff and students as possible”.

Tracey’s predecessor Dame Louise Richardson in December warned against the “cancellation” of benefactors in an interview with the FT.

In 2021, when Richardson was in charge, a motion passed by the student union to rename the Sackler Library was not taken up by the university.

The student union said it was “concerned about these revelations regarding continued financial ties to the Sackler family and are raising this with the university”.

Shame on Sackler Oxford, a campaign group, has in recent weeks circulated a petition calling for the university to remove the Sackler name from all buildings and academic posts and cut all material ties.

Phillip Pyle, the group’s founder and a masters student, said the university’s social connections with the Sacklers were not initially detailed in the petition but would now be added.

“That was what was so shocking, to see that the university still has a social relationship with the Sacklers,” he said.

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