Senior administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were aware of charitable gifts made to its Media Lab between 2013 and 2017 by sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the university has disclosed.
In a letter posted on MIT’s website, its president, Rafael Reif, also acknowledged having attended at least one senior team meeting during which Epstein’s gifts were discussed, and having signed a 2012 letter thanking him for a donation to a professor.
Those were among the initial findings from a review of MIT’s ties to the disgraced financier completed by the law firm Goodwin Procter. The university retained the firm following revelations published in The New Yorker magazine a week ago that the head of its prestigious Media Lab, Joi Ito, worked to conceal gifts from Epstein, who committed suicide in a New York jail cell last month while awaiting trial on charges of trafficking underage girls.
Mr Ito, a technology entrepreneur, resigned from the Media Lab over the weekend, while also stepping down from the board of The New York Times Company. Mr Reif, meanwhile, has sought to contain the damage to one of the world’s top universities, promising a “thorough investigation”.
In a letter addressed to “the members of the MIT community”, the university’s president noted that Goodwin Procter found “a copy of a standard acknowledgment letter thanking Jeffrey Epstein for a gift to Seth Lloyd”, a professor of physics and quantum mechanics at the school.
It was, Mr Reif noted, the first gift MIT received from Epstein after he pleaded guilty in a Florida court in 2009 to soliciting prostitution with a minor.
“I apparently signed this letter on August 16 2012, about six weeks into my presidency. Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature,” Mr Reif wrote.
Epstein used philanthropic gifts as a way to rehabilitate his reputation after serving a short jail sentence for his crimes. MIT, and its president, have been rattled by the Media Lab’s association with him. Yet they are hardly alone: titans of finance, technology moguls, top academics and many others have been scrambling to distance themselves from Epstein since he was arrested in July by federal prosecutors on lurid charges.
Meanwhile, Harvard University also provided a fuller picture of its association with Epstein. In an email message, Larry Bacow, the Harvard president, said the school had received almost $9m from Mr Epstein up to 2007 — the year before his conviction.
That was some $2.4m more than previously disclosed. Mr Bacow also said Harvard turned down a further gift in 2008.
“Epstein’s behaviour, not just at Harvard, but elsewhere, raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors,” Mr Bacow wrote, calling the financier’s crimes “repulsive and reprehensible”.
MIT had also initially played down its relationship with Epstein. In late August it reported it had received about $800,000 in donations from him over the years, some of which came after his conviction.
In his letter, Mr Reif shed new light on how an elite university attempted to navigate its relationship with a deep-pocketed felon.
Senior members of the MIT’s administration first contacted Mr Ito in 2013, the president wrote, after discovering that Epstein had contributed to the Media Lab. Mr Ito asked to keep the gifts, arguing that Epstein had served his jail sentence and was no longer engaging in criminal behaviour.
“They accepted Joi’s assessment of the situation. Of course they did not know what we all know about Epstein now,” Mr Reif stated.
The president noted that his team directed Mr Ito not to allow Epstein to take public credit for his donations — apparently wary that he might use his association with the university to enhance his reputation.
“I am aware that we could and should have asked more questions about Jeffrey Epstein and about his interactions with Joi,” Mr Reif wrote. “We did not see through the limited facts we had, and we did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offences or the harm to his young victims. I take responsibility for those errors.”