Senior administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology approved charitable donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein with full knowledge of his criminal past but then tried to conceal the money’s origin to protect the university’s reputation, according to a report released on Friday.
The report, written by an outside law firm and commissioned by MIT, pulls back the curtain on a tortuous internal deliberation as administrators weighed whether the university should take money from a deep-pocketed donor who had given millions of dollars to rival Harvard but was also a known sex offender and accused paedophile.
It shows the close relationships between Epstein and various MIT professors. One, Marvin Minsky, visited Epstein in jail, according to an email cited in the report, while another, Seth Lloyd, tried to conceal his gifts and then told investigators he believed that engaging with the sex offender might contribute to his rehabilitation.
Another well-known MIT professor, Nicholas Negroponte, invoked Italy’s former premier, Silvio Berlusconi — then accused of dating underage girls — as he vouched for Epstein. “I would take Berlusconi’s money, so why not Jeff,” Mr Negroponte wrote to a colleague in 2013.
Epstein, a New York financier with high-level social connections, pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution from a minor under a controversial agreement with Florida prosecutors. He was arrested again in June 2019 on sex trafficking charges, and then found dead in his jail cell in August.
The 61-page report, authored by law firm Goodwin Procter, is an attempt by MIT to draw a line under a relationship that has embarrassed the university and roiled its campus since its details were revealed by the New Yorker magazine last September.
Between 2002 and 2017, MIT accepted 10 donations totalling $850,000 from Epstein. Some $750,000 of that came after 2008. Most of it went to the school’s prestigious Media Lab, whose head, Joi Ito, stepped down in September under a storm of criticism.
Goodwin concluded that university administrators had not violated any policies — because MIT did not have a robust charitable gifts policy that should have anticipated controversial donors and guided their response. Still, the firm noted: “It is clear that the decision was the result of collective and significant errors in judgment that resulted in serious damage to the MIT community.”
In a letter, Rafael Reif, the school’s president, on Friday called the report “a sharp reminder of human fallibility and its consequences”.
MIT’s self-examination comes as art galleries, museums, universities and other institutions are facing renewed scrutiny of the sources of their donations. On the advice of philanthropy experts, many are buttressing their charitable gifts policies to try to avert similar scandals.
A central figure in the Goodwin report is Mr Ito, who was introduced to Epstein, a science buff, at a TED conference in California in February 2013, and was almost immediately thrust into a dilemma about whether to accept his patronage. Soon after the introduction, he asked two staffers to review Epstein as a potential prospect.
One of those staffers alerted Mr Ito that Epstein “might not be an individual the Lab should work with” and forwarded a link to a Wikipedia page that detailed his transgressions, according to the report.
Mr Ito contacted Mr Negroponte, his predecessor, for advice. He was also apparently swayed by dinners he attended at Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion with actor Woody Allen, a former Israeli prime minister and a collection of billionaires — all of whom vouched for the philanthropist. Mr Ito promised colleagues he would “tread carefully” with Epstein.
Still, MIT administrators had misgivings. On the eve of a meeting with Mr Ito in 2013, Jeffrey Newton, then a top executive in the university’s development office, concluded that MIT should not accept a $100,000 Epstein gift.
Mr Ito finally persuaded him otherwise by holding out the potential for much larger gifts from Epstein and also arguing that Harvard had accepted greater sums from him. (Harvard took $9m in donations from Epstein — but none after his 2008 guilty plea.)
Mr Newton and two colleagues then devised a unique arrangement by which Epstein’s donations would remain anonymous. According to the report, they believed it was a compromise that would allow MIT to benefit from Epstein’s money while preventing a convicted felon from using the school to launder his reputation.
But Epstein foiled their plans by loudly publicising his gifts — and even claiming credit for other, larger ones that he never made. Epstein also boasted that he had steered a $2m gift to the Media Lab from Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. Mr Gates vehemently denies this — and the report found no evidence that it happened.
As for Epstein, the report shows his wiles as he approached the university. To his disappointment, other schools had rejected his money following his guilty plea. He took a gradual approach in 2012 as he attempted to hook the school through Mr Lloyd, a longtime friend, writing: “[I’m] going to give you two 50k tranches to see if the line jingles.”
When Epstein provided the first $50,000 donation to support Mr Lloyd’s research in June 2012, the professor did not alert school authorities about its origin. Instead, he provided only the name of Epstein’s assistant, Leslie Groff.
“The only reasonable inference is that Professor Lloyd did this to obscure the fact that Epstein was the donor,” Goodwin concluded. Mr Lloyd, who has publicly apologised for his dealings with Epstein, acknowledged to the report’s authors he had been “professionally remiss”.
MIT finally adjusted its relationship with Epstein in late 2018, after the Miami Herald published an acclaimed series about his case.
Soon after the articles appeared, Mr Ito wrote an email to friends and family: “I’m sure you’re seeing Jeffrey Epstein a lot in the recent news cycle and wondering so I thought I should let you know that I have distanced ourselves and [sic] are no longer meeting or seeking and [sic] support from him on anything.”