Around every campus one can see the names of the University’s benefactors. From buildings, wings and hallways to sculptures and even benches, I’ve often wondered who the people are behind the names. I’ve even thought to myself, “Oh, if I donate enough money, I too could have a chair or at least a leaf on a tree named after me.” 

But, as they say, there is no such thing as free money. We’ve seen the news about the Sackler family, whose name adorns wings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and previously at the Guggenheim and Smithsonian. The original Arthur Sackler was known for being a physician and for promoting Valium through advertising, one of the first to market drugs directly to physicians. The Sackler family name is now inextricably intertwined  with that of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, and is now accused of lighting the fuse that spawned the opioid crisis. In the mid to late 1990s, members of the Sackler family, who were at the time very involved in the day to day operations of Purdue Pharma, insisted that OxyContin was not as potent as morphine, even though it was several times stronger. Their continued denial of any involvement in the opioid crisis, even though they pled guilty in 2007, has stunned and outraged the American public. 

In the mid 1990s, Purdue Pharma (bought by the three Sackler brothers in 1952) began manufacturing and marketing oxycodone as a painkiller that was safer than other narcotics due to its time-release properties. Marketed as OxyContin, it soon became the  go-to prescription to treat pain. The company deceived regulatory agencies, the medical community and patients about the addictive nature of this drug. Moreover, they continued to market and sell this drug. At the same time, Sackler family members started moving their money out of Purdue Pharma into other legal entities and offshore accounts. Does this somehow taint Dr. Arthur Sackler’s image or his good deeds and donations? Someone has to be held accountable, and the root of the opioid crisis seems to stem from Purdue Pharma, which is why they’re being targeted. 

Many institutions, such as Tufts University, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Britain’s Tate Museums have, in the wake of information coming out in the past few years, have announced that they will reevaluate their relationship with the Sackler family, and are considering returning any unused gift portions. Some have stopped taking donations altogether and some have returned them.

The other high roller name that has been prominent in the news lately has been Jeffrey Epstein. He has given money to the Ohio State University, Harvard and the Massachussets Institute of Technology, and the controversies have been coming non-stop. As more and more details are revealed, we are finding that other big, influential individuals and companies were also directed to donate at Mr. Epstein’s behest. Some of the trails have been resolved, and a letter dated Sept.  12 from President Reif to the MIT community stated that Ito told senior members of Reif’s staff that he (Ito) believed Epstein had been rehabilitated.  Additionally, Ito stated that the money was spent on general research, and that Epstein’s name could not be associated with the gifts.  However, the more disturbing part is the cover up; some donors didn’t want their association with Epstein documented alongside their contribution. Some schools listed the donations as anonymous. The problem with that is that there is at least one person in the office who knows exactly where the money came from. But one cannot launder bad money into good by making donations.

The schools also want the money to continue their lofty research or to open new shiny buildings. Sometimes donations are used to fund scholarships that go towards tuition, which, the schools bemoan, covers only a fraction of the actual cost of general operations. Given the fact that small contributors are unable to give even the minuscule quantities they used to, these large donations seem to be just the thing to whet the insatiable appetite of the higher education system. It seems almost impossible for them to say no.

And yet, so much good is done with the money: students in need of financial aid (of which I am one) get scholarships, and as a result research continues, salaries are paid and the lights stay on. So the cycle lathers, rinses and repeats itself into perpetuity.

Full disclosure, I’m a small-time donor to my high school as well as to my undergraduate alma mater. I’ve solicited funds from my classmates for both. My name isn’t on much of anything except a license plate and a domain name. 

What is the responsibility of the school in soliciting funds? How much background research must be done before monies are accepted? What is the responsibility of the development office, which is such an odd name for the fundraising arm of a school? What is even being developed? Film? Land? Isn’t the role of this office to ask for donations? To periodically assemble a team of volunteers to do the dirty work and then get the credit? Do they write grants? Don’t they host gala events and then shyly have a basket for cash or Venmo payments?

The manipulation games being played here are astounding. I have seen the tear-jerking ads saying that for the price of a cup of java I could help a child. Be like so and so, I am told, and feel good about yourself as you write this check to your school. 

I myself have written these emails. Why do I donate? Up until the recent tax law changes, I donated because I wanted to have a direct association with places I was giving money to. I wanted my small donation to “count” for something, versus the 50 bucks here and there for other good causes. I wanted to set a good example for my classmates, and I hoped that my leadership level of donation might encourage them to donate more as well. The list goes on.

As it turns out, MIT has a donor database and in it there are semi-detailed records and notes. Epstein was listed as a “disqualified” donor after his conviction in 2008. Luckily, I’m qualified to give money to my school. I  feel blessed to be able to give even a little money, as now I’m in a different school and am amassing student loans up the wazoo. I’ve been asked to be on the “gift” committee yet again, on which I shall serve with pleasure. But I’m neither the donor nor the solicitor that MIT has to worry about. 

Most people can’t give much money. And the 80-20 rule or 90-10 rule holds true. It’s the big bucks donors who account for most of the donations. These folks have to be vetted, but they are wined and dined by folks in the administration. And, what they contribute evidently does count for something. We all know the exorbitant cost of tuition and every other expense at a school: faculty, facilities, support staff, the list goes on. Without these mega-bucks, higher education in the USA would come to a standstill.