Over the past two years, activists have periodically gathered in front of the Harvard Art Museums — not to take issue with anything in its collection, but rather to object to one of the names mounted on its facade.
In the midst of a national opioid crisis, the protesters have repeatedly called on Harvard to remove philanthropist and drug marketer Arthur M. Sackler’s name from its Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean art collection.
Despite these persistent calls, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has repeatedly declined to remove Sackler’s name or return the gift to his estate.
Sackler’s is not the only donation that has caused controversy in recent years. Gifts like those given by billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein and the Saudi Arabian government have also prompted questions.
These donations have raised concerns about how Harvard screens gifts it is offered and evaluates when it might be necessary to return a donation to its benefactor. An internal gift policy guides these decisions, but it is not made available to the public.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to provide The Crimson with a copy of the policy or disclose members of the University Gift Policy Committee, a group chaired by University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and made up of faculty members and administrators who review gifts.
Swain wrote that Harvard accepts donations that will have a “positive impact” on Harvard affiliates and research.
“Harvard accepts donations in good faith and with the expectation that the philanthropy is intended to have -- and will have -- a positive impact on learning, scholarship, teaching, research and the student experience at Harvard,” he wrote. “That, in turn, will continue to enable Harvard to make discoveries, educate future leaders, and contribute to innovation, progress and positive change.”
Between the lack of a public gift policy and keeping its review committee members under wraps, Harvard appears to be making an effort to keep its fundraising policies and procedures behind closed doors. This secrecy in turn creates barriers to understanding the ethics behind Harvard’s fundraising.
As one of the wealthiest universities in the world, Harvard receives countless gifts every year. Some, however, receive more scrutiny than the rest.
In the case of the Sackler donation, activists have argued that Harvard should remove its benefactor’s name because of what they say are ties to Purdue Pharma, the makers of the addictive painkiller OxyContin.
Members of Sackler’s extended family have served as executives at the company and have been blamed for playing a role in the opioid epidemic. Since the 1990s, more than 200,000 Americans have died of opioid abuse.
Bacow has repeatedly said the University would neither remove the Sackler family name from campus buildings nor return any past donations from the family, justifying his decision with Sackler’s lack of a connection to OxyContin’s production.
“Dr. Arthur Sackler died before the drug was developed. His family sold their interest in the company before the drug was developed,” Bacow said. “I think it would be inappropriate for the University to either return the gift or take Dr. Sackler's name off the building that his gift supported given that he had absolutely no relationship to it.”
Criticisms of Harvard’s connection to the Sackler family first arose in January 2018 when Nan Goldin, a photographer of several works housed in Harvard’s art collection, urged Harvard Art Museums to refuse donations from the family.
At the time, Goldin was undergoing treatment for her addiction to OxyContin, and she later organized a “die-in” to protest the Harvard Art Museums’ ties to the Sackler family in July 2018.
Activists and politicians have since joined calls for Harvard to remove Sackler’s name from the art museum, including Democratic presidential candidate and United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
A spokesperson for Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur Sackler, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
In a recent interview, Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation William F. Lee ’72 said the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — supports Bacow’s decision.
“Issues like Sackler have arisen, President Bacow has basically articulated the position of the University,” Lee said. “But we’re the fiduciaries — we're the board, he's the boss, and we feel we fully support his position.”
In that same interview, Lee declined to comment on Epstein’s donation, a gift about which Bacow has also refused to answer questions.
Epstein, who never attended Harvard, donated tens of millions of dollars to the University, including funds to construct a Harvard Hillel building and to establish the University’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics.
In November, the Miami Herald reported that though he faced a potential life sentence for running a sex ring of underage girls out of his Palm Beach, Fla. home for years, Epstein’s legal team negotiated a plea deal that ended an FBI investigation into his conduct and sentenced him to 13 months in county jail.
When the Epstein allegations first came to light in 2oo6, a Harvard spokesperson said the University would not return the gift.
“Mr. Epstein’s gift is funding important research using mathematics to study areas such as evolutionary theory, viruses, and cancers,” a Harvard spokesperson said at the time. “The University is not considering returning this gift.”
Former University President Derek C. Bok — who was serving as interim president in 2006 — stood by a 1979 open letter he wrote on the ethics of accepting controversial gifts. He wrote that in extreme cases the University should return donations from those who earned their money immorally, but generally, the University should not consider the “symbolic” value of returning a gift.
“[O]n the whole, I would be inclined to accept such donations on the ground that the tangible benefits of using the money … should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions,” Bok wrote.
In light of the Miami Herald investigation, The Crimson reported on Epstein’s long-standing connections to Harvard. This time, the University stayed silent on the matter, with a University spokesperson declining to comment on the donation.
Earlier this month, Bacow said he was not aware of Epstein’s donation or his connection to Harvard.
“I don't know the specifics of the Jeffrey Epstein donation or his relationship to the University, actually,” Bacow said. “I'm not going to speculate.”
Epstein’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Cambridge residents and Harvard students have also questioned the University’s ties to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited both Harvard and MIT in March 2018. The University offered no public events or press releases about Prince Mohammad’s meetings with Harvard administrators, while the Saudi government touted “strong ties” between them and Harvard.
After a group of Saudi citizens affiliated with the crown prince killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, many American businesses, politicians, and universities re-examined their affiliations with the kingdom.
The Crimson also reported on ‘secretive, dubious partnerships’ between the University and the Saudi royal family through donations for programs and professorships across Harvard’s schools.
A foundation with ties to Prince Mohammed — called MiSK — sponsors a summer leadership development course hosted at Harvard. A press release in March 2016 stated that the “MiSK Foundation has an agreement with Harvard University to allocate 12.5% of the 800 seats for MiSK students.”
In an interview, Lee said the Corporation has not considered cutting ties with Saudi Arabia.
“No, no,” Lee said.
“I would say if you think about it, cutting ties for the country's sort of a blunt instrument,” Lee added. “We did divest from Sudanese investments. But that was for really radically different reasons.”
The Saudi Arabian embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Amid these controversial donations, Harvard’s secretive gift review process offers little insight into its ethical standards.
A website for Harvard’s Financial Policy Office says that its Alumni Affairs & Development office maintains a gift policy guide for the University.
“ADS works collaboratively with internal and external University partners to...keep up-to-date the University Gift Policy Guide which covers issues that include endowment fund minimums, naming, financial administration of funds, establishing fund terms, and dealing with situations specific to particular types of donors, designations, or gift vehicles,” the website reads.
When asked for the gift policy, Swain offered a statement instead.
“The gift policy is designed to ensure that no gift to Harvard will provide a donor with real or perceived influence over the structure, process, content, or results of research, curriculum or other academic activities,” Swain wrote. “In accepting gifts, Harvard retains full control over the administration of the funds which are then administered for the purposes agreed to in the terms of the gift.”
It is unclear what specific guidelines the policy includes, but Swain listed the types of donations Harvard does not take.
“Harvard will not accept gifts with terms that would require involvement by the donor or a third party in directing the use or administration of the gifts, including decisions regarding admissions, financial aid awards, hiring, faculty appointments, or research topics,” Swain added. “Direct donor involvement in the administration of a gift is prohibited. Donors may not have special access to the results of research funded by a gift.”
Harvard’s Gift Policy Committee is tasked with reviewing gifts from donors.
Swain declined to name members of that committee.
Beyond administrators’ unwillingness to share policy or committee specifics, it also does not appear to discuss their existence widely.
Some Harvard donors had not heard of the review committee and were not aware of whether their gifts had been reviewed.
Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60, a donor and former Crimson editor, wrote he had not heard of the University Gift Policy in an email.
“I hadn't even known there was a Gift Policy Committee, and I neither know who serves on it nor what part of the University runs it,” Buttenwieser wrote.
Peter L. Malkin ’55 — for whom the Malkin Athletic Center is named — was also not aware of the Gift Policy Committee.
“I do not know whether this is a long-standing committee or whether it's something new, but the answer is I have never heard of it personally,” Malkin said.
The Gift Policy Committee is the main forum for reviewing gifts, but Lee said on rare occasions he and the rest 0f the Corporation will weigh in if asked by the committee.
“From time to time, there will be issues that have come to that committee that they will want the Corporation to know about, and usually I'll get a call,” Lee said. “And it will just be, ‘Here's the question, here's what the committee has decided, do you think there's any problem?’ And it will generally not go any further than maybe me and the treasurer.”
Lee also said the Corporation can get involved in managing major donations as well. He cited gifts from billionaires Gerald L. Chan, who pledged a $350 million gift to rename the School of Public Health, and John A. Paulson, who gave the largest gift in University history with his $400 million donation toward the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Generally, though, Lee said the Gift Policy Committee makes the decisions on their own.
“They come to us pretty rarely, because the guiding principles are pretty clear, which is, we're very grateful to our donors, but anyone who gives a gift basically has to make the gift, but then rely upon the University to administer the gift and use the funds in the best interest of the faculty and students, and without the donor believing that it somehow gives them a right to become involved in the management of the University,” Lee said.
When issues arise after a gift has already been given, the path forward is also unclear.
Swain wrote that it is highly unusual for the University to return a gift. He also wrote that a variety of factors go into choosing which gifts to review and that accepted gifts should contribute to the academic or student experience at Harvard.
“Terms for funds gifted to the university include protections for Harvard’s fundamental commitment to academic freedom and the rigorous and independent pursuit of truth,” he wrote.
Experts disagree on how the University should proceed with donations from controversial benefactors.
Chiara Cordelli, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies philanthropy, said that it is important to acknowledge that Harvard is wealthy enough not to accept every gift offered and thus should use more discretion in accepting donations.
“Harvard generally does not need to accept certain donations in order to survive and of course, depending on the organization, there are different symbolic or expressive powers that come with accepting the donation,” Cordelli said. “If you are accepting a donation that … directly comes from an injustice such that if the injustice hasn’t occurred then the money wouldn’t be there, then there is a serious question of complicity. You can be depriving victims of the injustice of resources that they should receive.”
Both Cordelli and Peter A.D. Singer, a philosopher and professor at Princeton, said that money from the Sackler family would be better used to repair the damage of the opioid epidemic.
“An institution like Harvard could remove the name and indicate it would not return the gift but put similar funds toward something else,” said Singer, who suggested medical programs to help those addicted to opioids, social science programs to study vulnerable populations, and other legal and ethical programs.
Cordelli, however, also noted that legal considerations may make this challenging.
“Contractually, you’re not supposed to redirect the money unless the donor consents. What I think Harvard should do is to publicly push for the donor to give consent to redirect the money for a program that can be regarded as reparative of the injustice done,” Cordelli said. “If the donor refuses to give this consent — I think in the case of Harvard, this might change case-by-case — Harvard should give back the money.”
Swain declined to comment on criticisms of Harvard’s use of the Sackler gift. Harvard recently started a partnership with the University of Michigan to study solutions to the opioid epidemic.
Similar to Bok’s views in 1979, Malkin said that a donation should be accepted unless a donor earned their money illegally or has bad intentions.
“My feeling is that unless the donation will serve an ulterior purpose of the donor or will be derived from funds that were received from an illegal or grossly improper source, I think that the University certainly should have the discussion to whether to accept the donations,” Malkin said.
Rick Cohen, an executive at the National Council of Nonprofits, said that ultimately, there’s no one right or wrong answer.
“At the end of the day, it’s about what is in the best interest of the organization, the people that the organization serves,” Cohen said. “Where the money comes from is part of the consideration, but the larger consideration should always be the mission of the organization. That’s not to say money from a bad place should always be accepted if the organization is going to do something good with it. It’s a judgment call for each organization.”
—Staff writer Cindy H. Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.