The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Epstein’s donations to universities reveal a painful truth about philanthropy

MIT accepted about $800,000 of Jeffrey Epstein’s money over 20 years, the school’s president acknowledged in an apology.
MIT accepted about $800,000 of Jeffrey Epstein’s money over 20 years, the school’s president acknowledged in an apology. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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Jeffrey Epstein forged deep ties with some of the nation’s elite universities and their scholars, showering them with millions of dollars in donations. As the extent of those gifts comes into sharper focus, academics confront a painful realization: The financier’s donations supported important research and helped scientists work toward discoveries, but they also provided a veneer of credibility to a convicted sex offender.

The ensuing fallout — prompting resignations, soul-searching and outrage — illuminates enduring questions for academia about the money that fuels research, and how institutions nurture relationships with donors in the race to excel.

Epstein gave repeatedly to MIT and Harvard University. On Saturday, MIT President L. Rafael Reif responded to allegations in the New Yorker that Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, and others sought to conceal the source of money Epstein had donated. Reif, in a letter to the campus, called the accusations “deeply disturbing” and announced Ito had submitted his resignation as director of Media Lab, professor and employee. He also said an outside law firm would be hired to conduct a thorough review.

Ito did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Last month, Reif apologized to Epstein’s victims in a message to campus. The school accepted about $800,000 of Epstein’s money over 20 years, Reif wrote, with gifts to the MIT Media Lab and to a mechanical engineering professor.

“With hindsight,” Reif wrote then, “we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts. No apology can undo that.” He announced the school would give to a charity benefiting Epstein’s victims or other sexual abuse victims an amount equivalent to Epstein’s donations to the school. He also pledged that the school will examine the gifts to determine whether internal controls can be bolstered to prevent similar issues.

The largest gift to Harvard University from Epstein was $6.5 million in 2003, for the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, according to a school spokesman.

Martin Nowak, director of that program, said there was only one gift from Epstein in support of his research, and that money was spent by 2007.

In 2006, when Epstein was facing sex-crime charges, the Harvard Crimson reported that the school would not return the gift, although some prominent recipients of Epstein’s donations had done so.

In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to two felony offenses, including procuring a person under 18 for prostitution.

The school didn’t accept gifts from Epstein after that, according to a Harvard spokesman who said he could not comment on financial support received by faculty members directly from Epstein after 2007. Faculty report and disclose their donors in several ways, including directly to the university, in research publications and to federal agencies if they receive public funding for their work, he said.

At MIT, Seth Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor, apologized to Epstein’s victims with a recent post on the website Medium. He wrote that he met Epstein at a dinner “for scientists and their supporters” in 2004.

Lloyd wrote that he was “deeply disturbed” by Epstein’s conviction but that he visited the financier in prison and, after Epstein’s release, “I resumed attending the discussions that he convened with other scientists and accepted two grants from his foundation, one in 2012, and a second in 2017. These were professional as well as moral failings,” Lloyd wrote. He did not disclose the amounts of the grants.

He wrote that he had committed money to help victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, “and will work assiduously to help make your voices heard.”

Lloyd declined to discuss the issue further with The Washington Post, other than to add that when Epstein got out of prison, “I did not ask him for money. Rather, he approached me to offer it. He wanted to try to resume his funding of science.”

It was Epstein’s arrest in July on new, federal charges of sexually abusing dozens of girls in the early 2000s that again cast a spotlight on the recipients of his philanthropy.

Ito, the MIT Media Lab’s director, apologized on the lab’s website last month. He explained that he met Epstein in 2013, invited him to tour the Media Lab and visited Epstein’s homes. The multimillionaire donated to the Media Lab and invested in several of Ito’s funds backing tech start-up companies separate from MIT, Ito wrote.

“I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of,” Ito wrote, but he said he was deeply sorry for bringing such a person into the network.

Ito pledged to raise an amount equivalent to Epstein’s Media Lab donations and give it to nonprofits helping victims of sex trafficking. He also promised to return the money invested in his funds. He did not specify the amount.

The revelations of the ties between the Media Lab and Epstein, who died in August while in federal custody, led two scholars to publicly announce their intention to leave MIT.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and an associate professor of the practice at the Media Lab, wrote in a post on Medium that he had decided to leave the school at the end of the academic year.

“I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors,” Zuckerman wrote. “. . . For me, the deep involvement of Epstein in the life of the Media Lab is something that makes my work impossible to carry forward there.”

Zuckerman declined to comment further to The Post.

J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at MIT who is on the faculty at Cornell University, wrote in a post on Medium that he had only recently learned of the connections between Epstein and MIT and that they were incompatible with the work his CivilServant project does, including research on protecting vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment.

“I cannot with integrity do that,” he wrote, “from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein.”

Epstein’s gifts to MIT, Harvard and other organizations underscored the sometimes uncomfortable pressures on faculty and labs to raise money for their work, and the potentially fraught relationships institutions can have with wealthy donors.

It’s known as tainted money, said Bill Stanczykiewicz, director of the Fund Raising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “It should be a major concern,” he said.

And not a new one: “As long as we’ve had money,” he said, “we’ve had tainted money.”

Every nonprofit starts with a well-considered gift policy to ensure that donations align with the institution’s mission, Stanczykiewicz said.

There isn’t a tradition of scrutinizing every donor, said Jacob Harold, executive vice president of Candid, a nonprofit that provides information about philanthropies. But taking a moment to consider major potential donors “is a practical strategy I think many organizations have already taken,” he said. “Perhaps more should.”

Sometimes, revelations emerge about a donor after a gift has been accepted. The ensuing decisions involve interlocking legal, ethical and strategic considerations, Harold said. It’s complicated by tax law; presumably, the donor has already taken a tax deduction and the money is legally in the public trust.

“Ethically, it’s also tricky for all sorts of obvious reasons,” Harold said, such as “questions of how we define guilt, how we define responsibility, whether an organization believes the money can do more social good with them than if it were returned.”

Strategically, many organizations rely on donations to survive, so choosing to give up money can be the right decision but it is not one made lightly.

Last summer, Purdue University leaders voted to remove the name of John H. Schnatter from a research center and offered to return a pledged $8 million donation after Forbes reported that the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain used a racial slur. A spokesman said $1 million, the total amount received, was returned. Ball State University, Schnatter’s alma mater, also erased his name from an institute, returned his gift, and issued a statement condemning racism.

At Stanford University this past spring, administrators announced changes to the school’s gift acceptance process after learning that nearly $800,000 had been donated to the sailing program by a foundation tied to a fraudulent admissions scheme. They also pledged to donate $800,000 to charity.

Nonprofits have responded in various ways to demands that they return gifts from the Sackler family because one branch of the family founded Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a drug blamed for helping ignite the prescription opioid crisis. Stanczykiewicz said some recipients have returned the donations, while others pledged not to accept more.

A petition with nearly 15,000 digital signatures calls for Harvard to cut ties with the Sackler family. Harvard has said it does not intend to rename the school’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, because the donation in the 1980s predated the sale of the opioid and originated from a branch of the family not connected with Purdue Pharma.

In some cases, problematic gifts go back to the founding of the institution.

Harvard Law School removed the school’s longtime seal in 2016 after leaders decided it no longer reflected the values of the institution. The seal featured the crest of the Royall family. The fortune of Isaac Royall Jr. established the first professorship of law at Harvard. Students challenged the symbol because the Royall family owned many slaves in the 18th century.

“We cannot choose our history but we can choose that for which we stand,” Martha Minow, the school’s dean at the time, wrote.

Correction: This story has been updated to include comments from Martin Nowak. An earlier version incorrectly said he did not respond.

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