Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Editorial writer and columnist

When it comes to choosing friends and associates, who has better judgment: President Trump, or a psychology professor at Harvard?

Based solely on their histories with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and sex offender, you’d have to say Trump.

Until 2004, Trump and Epstein were regular party buddies; then Trump developed a dislike for Epstein, possibly over competing claims to Florida real estate, and banned him from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where Epstein had previously prowled for young women. Thereafter, Trump had little or nothing to do with Epstein.

The very next year, by contrast, Harvard University’s psychology department gave Epstein the prestigious title of visiting fellow — though he had no undergraduate or graduate degree, the usual prerequisites. Epstein got a second one-year appointment for the 2006-2007 school year, despite having done no academic work in 2005-2006.

His sponsor both times was the department chairman, Stephen Kosslyn (now retired), who took $200,000 in research-support donations from Epstein from 1998 to 2002 — and who overruled a subordinate’s objections to the sinecure for Epstein. Kosslyn went out of his way to flatter the “insightful” Epstein in a 2006 research paper.

This is just one of many revelations in a new report Harvard commissioned on its institutional interactions with the repulsive Epstein, who committed suicide last year while awaiting trial on federal human-trafficking charges.

Such grotesque money-grubbing at the pinnacle of U.S. academia — a school, to be sure, that has positioned itself an ethical leader, especially in the movement against sexual assault and gender bias on campus — deserves a full airing, even amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It joins a lengthening list of cautionary tales of fundraising excess, such as the admissions-for-cash episode involving athletic teams at Yale, Stanford, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and Georgetown, among others.

With families increasingly questioning the costs and benefits of college education, these institutions can no longer assume that the public takes their integrity for granted.

At the same time, an economic crisis is bearing down on higher education in the form of a projected revenue loss of $45 billion next academic year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The need for cash is probably at or near an all-time high, and so is the risk, reputational and otherwise, of cutting ethical corners to raise it.

Professors and administrators can ill afford the moral arrogance that characterized the dealings of some at Harvard with Epstein, or their sloppiness, or their cluelessness.

He donated a total of $9.1 million to various professors’ research programs between 1998 to 2008 and, in return, received the cachet and credibility that come from being welcome among its big-name faculty and administrators.

Harvard’s then-president, Drew Gilpin Faust, barred new contributions from Epstein after he pleaded guilty in Florida to solicitation of prostitution from a minor in 2006, and he resigned his fellowship. However, Harvard kept his money.

And soon after Epstein served 13 months of his 18-month sentence, he was back on campus, as the protege of mathematician Martin Nowak, whose work Epstein had supported to the tune of $6.5 million — and who was a frequent visitor to Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean.

Epstein “has changed my life,” Nowak told New York magazine in 2002. “Because of his support, I feel I can do anything I want.”

Though he couldn’t give his own dollars, Epstein helped raise money — $9.5 million in all — from others to support Nowak and Harvard Medical School professor George Church.

Nowak arranged for Epstein, a registered sex offender, to have office space at his Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, and key-card access to the program’s building in Harvard Square. Nowak included favorable material about Epstein on his program’s website.

Between 2010 and 2018, Epstein made some 40 visits to campus, often to meet with Nowak and other faculty. He was frequently accompanied by women in their early 20s, according to witnesses quoted in the report.

It is to Harvard’s credit that the university, under Faust’s successor, President Lawrence Bacow, has published the results of its investigation and agreed to donate $201,000 of unspent Epstein money to aid victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. Nowak has been suspended and could face further discipline.

Financial support is a necessary condition for free academic inquiry, and schools should take it, after doing appropriate due diligence, from any reputable source, including those who may be controversial for religious or ideological reasons.

But letting a con man buy prestigious fellowships and other access, contrary to Harvard’s own rules, and to continue doing so after he had pleaded guilty to a sex offense, is not a close ethical call.

Not everyone at Harvard — much less everyone in higher ed — is to blame for this sorry episode. Every college and university can learn from it.

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