Jeffrey Epstein’s deep connection to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is coming into clearer focus, story by story. He polished his reputation by buying associations to respected institutions, and large, sophisticated nonprofit universities were easy prey for his efforts—at times, even willing conspirators, leaving us to wonder why this was so.
NPQ has seen a pattern that this news makes even clearer: “Key individuals knew a donor had crossed the line and should be shunned, yet he was not. The organization’s preventative systems were loose enough to allow them to be ignored and manipulated in order to continue to benefit.”
Months of denial by Harvard University ended when its president publicly acknowledged that while they have not completed their internal review, they have found they had accepted at least $9 million from Epstein between 1997 and 2007.
In a statement to the Harvard community, university president Larry Bacow said “Epstein’s behavior, not just at Harvard, but elsewhere, raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors. Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes were repulsive and reprehensible. I profoundly regret Harvard’s past association with him.”
All the funds Harvard has so far identified as coming from Epstein were received prior to his conviction as a sexual predator. But the relationship went beyond just accepting his money; it provided a means for Epstein to burnish his credentials, and those practices continued well after his conviction. As late as 2018, scholarly papers were being published with the recognition that “this work has been supported by the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, the MIT Media Lab and the Jeffrey Epstein Foundation.”
Further revelations about Epstein’s relationship with MIT also came to light last week. We now know more about how the university worked to keep his money flowing their way, and that the tie was not limited to the director of MIT’s Media Lab—it went deep into the university’s leadership. President L. Rafael Reif tweeted a message to the MIT community acknowledging that senior members of the administration knew of Epstein’s history and his conviction and yet were aware of gifts from his foundations. “We did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offenses or the harm to his young victims.”
According to Axios, while MIT had formally disqualified Epstein as a donor, elaborate paths were established to allow the university to continue to cash his checks. A development officer, upon becoming aware of a gift from Epstein, “did not suggest that MIT return the money. Instead, he asked why it hadn’t arrived in a more circuitous manner.”
Epstein would allegedly engineer a donation from [the chairman and CEO of a private equity firm] or from other undefined third parties….It was understood that [the surrogate donors] owed Epstein “favors”—perhaps they owed Epstein money for some kind of financial advice—and that Epstein could ask them to send those sums directly to MIT.
Individuals used to conceal Epstein as the source of funds were designated “do not call/do not solicit” so those unaware of the subterfuge would not find out.
Organizational response to the embarrassment of having been part of Epstein’s philanthropy-for-credibility exchange has played out predictably. Bacow followed the game plan when he apologized, committed to investigate fully, and pledged to be better in the future.
I profoundly regret Harvard’s past association with him. Conduct such as his has no place in our society. We act today in recognition of that fact. And we do so knowing that the scourge of sexual assault continues to demand our close attention and concerted action. Harvard is not perfect, but you have my commitment as president that we will always strive to be better.
This problem goes beyond the mechanics of fundraising. Just building in better safeguards and more oversight won’t break the cycle. Last week, NPQ asked whether it was possible to avoid future errors “without changing the overall economic structure that makes philanthropy essential to personal and institutional success?” The answer would appear to be no. High pressures for fundraising requires a commitment to winning that encourages skirting rules and moral principles. Unless that changes, don’t be surprised if our shock over respected organizations having ties to Jeffrey Epstein is later replaced by our shock over their ties to another rich pariah.—Martin Levine