Heads have rolled; new rules have been promised. But what led MIT to accept the donations of sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein is about much more than bad apples or bad fund-raising criteria: It’s a reflection of a culture that has strayed from basic values and that’s long overdue for a reckoning.
The report that MIT released Friday showed the Institute took $750,000 in donations from Epstein after he was convicted as a sex offender in Florida in 2008 (and $100,000 before that) as well as hosted the late financier on campus nine times between 2013 and 2017. The investigation of the donations, led by the law firm Goodwin Proctor at the behest of the MIT corporation, showed that in addition to two faculty members who solicited the post-conviction gifts — former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and mechanical engineering professor Seth Lloyd — three university vice-presidents, R. Gregory Morgan, Jeffrey Newton, and Israel Ruiz, were aware of Epstein’s donations, his reputation, and his 2008 conviction for soliciting a child for prostitution, and yet approved taking his money and keeping it a secret anyway.
That MIT faculty continued to court Epstein as a donor as late as 2017 — at a point when other universities and faculty were rejecting his overtures given his reputation for sexually trafficking underage girls and his interest in the discredited science of eugenics — shows a colossal lapse in judgment. Harvard is undergoing its own internal reckoning over the $6.5 million of Epstein’s money it took in 2003 for its program for evolutionary dynamics, but has the moral high ground of having not accepted Epstein donations after his criminal conviction.
MIT President Rafael Reif, whom the report indicates did not know that Epstein was a criminal even though he signed a 2012 donor acknowledgment letter, promises that the institute will soon release a new protocol for accepting donations from “controversial” funders. He’s also pledged to support campus safety, to reboot the MIT Media Lab, and to encourage whistleblowing and improve campus climate.
Reif would do well to listen closely to the entreaty of more than 60 leading female faculty at MIT, who in a September letter argued that the institute’s relationship with the convicted criminal “exposes a void where basic values should prevail, a cultural crisis that the administration must work to repair.”
The Epstein controversy, in the faculty group’s estimation, is not an isolated incident, but emblematic of a community where too many women still feel unwelcome. It is also reflective of a culture in which morality and social consequences are subservient to the pursuit of technological innovation.
To be sure, the bad apples needed to be thrown out. In September, Media Lab director Ito stepped down after news stories revealed he had not only courted Epstein knowing he was a sex offender, but had tried to keep the gifts secret. Richard Stallman, a visiting professor in the computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory, also resigned in September under pressure from MIT after arguing that a man having sex with an underage girl who is a prostitute might not be committing assault. With Friday’s report, tenured mechanical engineering professor Seth Lloyd has been placed on paid administrative lead. All three vice presidents who knew about the Epstein donations and his status as a convicted sex offender have left or will be leaving, though not explicitly because of accepting the funds. (And not everyone at MIT, of course, was so misguided; according to the report, Robert Millard, the chair of the MIT Corporation that governs the university, refused an invitation from Ito to meet with Epstein in 2016.)
Yet the recent report makes clear that no one who accepted Epstein’s money broke any MIT rules by accepting the gifts — nor any law. That the institute lacked any formal constraints on taking funds from such a morally compromised person and criminal is neither a surprise nor a distinction in this era when many universities are finding themselves scrambling to respond when donors’ reputations take a turn for the worse. Some universities have even chosen to turn down or give back donations — a reflection of shifting societal norms around taking money from unpalatable sources. Tufts University recently announced it would strip the Sackler name from its buildings and programs, despite $15 million in gifts from the family over 40 years, because it had profited off the opioid crisis. Ohio University gave $500,000 back to Roger Ailes of Fox News after he was sued for sexual harassment. And in 2017, after Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault, the University of Southern California rejected a $5 million donation from him for a women’s program. MIT has recently pledged to donate $850,000 to organizations that help survivors of sexual abuse.
There’s an argument, of course, that taking money from bad people to do good things might be better than just letting that money go into their stock portfolios or kids’ trust funds. Just as compelling, however, is the argument that universities and charities have laundered the reputations of the morally deficient by putting their names on buildings, endowed chairs, or annual reports.
That criticism, at least, doesn’t apply to MIT’s Epstein donations, which were kept secret because the recipients knew he had a bad reputation and didn’t want it in turn to contaminate theirs or MIT’s. But the fact that faculty members and vice presidents at MIT found it acceptable to take Epstein’s money but not acceptable to talk about it publicly suggests they knew they were doing something wrong.
The culture of permissive misogyny that has been well documented in Silicon Valley has had reverberations at MIT, and particularly at the Media Lab. Friday’s report included an e-mail from Nicholas Negroponte, the lab’s founder and chairman emeritus, in which he rationalized taking money from Epstein by saying he would also have taken money from former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had been accused of hiring child prostitutes. Stallman, long before he was pressured to leave MIT, had publicly argued that 14-year-old girls could potentially consent to sex with adults.
At MIT as elsewhere, technology is often viewed as values-neutral, and its creators absolved from the social consequences of what they create. It’s a dangerous extension of excusing geeks for a lack of social grace to also excuse them for a lack of moral compass — as if knowing how to code and caring for humanity are mutually exclusive traits.
MIT should do one better than just reckoning with its fund-raising policy and its campus climate. It should commit to being a better breeding ground for Silicon Valley and beyond, to creating a culture in which promoting the greater social good comes first, not after the goal of advancing scientific knowledge and technological innovation.
The women faculty leaders who wrote to Reif this fall may have put it best, when they said that MIT must shift its culture to “one which puts people first.”