Disgraced financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein made at least nine visits to MIT’s campus in recent years and gave the university $850,000, exposing “significant errors in judgment” by top administrators and faculty at the renowned institution, according to a report released on Friday.
The 60-page report commissioned by MIT faulted three top administrators — the university’s former lawyer, its former chief fund-raiser, and its current treasurer — for agreeing to take Epstein’s money as long as it was kept anonymous, relying on Wikipedia articles to check the financier’s reputation, and failing to appreciate the damage it could cause the institution if those donations became public. Their involvement had not been previously disclosed.
The report cleared Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif, who investigators said had no involvement in approving the gifts.
But the report, produced by law firm Goodwin Procter, reserved its harshest assessment for former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and mechanical engineering professor Seth Lloyd, who both courted Epstein donations.
Ito is described as simultaneously seeking approval from his bosses to accept money from Epstein and keen to cultivate the financier as a major donor, defending him to Media Lab staff who raised concerns. According to the report, Ito even strategized with Epstein about how to deal with the bad press the donor was receiving after some of his victims brought a civil lawsuit.
Lloyd, according to the report, tried to obscure some of Epstein’s donations and took a $60,000 gift from Epstein for his research, deposited it in his personal bank account and didn’t report it to MIT.
Reif has placed Lloyd on paid administrative leave while his department reviews disciplinary procedures, according to MIT officials. Lloyd did not respond to a request for comment.
But the report said the decision to accept Epstein’s money did not violate the institution’s policy because it had none for dealing with such controversial donors.
“Since MIT had no policy or processes for handling controversial donors in place at the time, the decision to accept Epstein’s post-conviction donations cannot be judged to be a policy violation,” the report states. “But it is clear that the decision was the result of collective and significant errors in judgment and resulted in serious damage to the MIT community.”
Reif said the report’s findings about the extent of MIT’s ties to Epstein were “disturbing.”
“I profoundly regret that decisions that sustained MIT’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein occurred on my watch and created so much pain and turmoil for the people of MIT,” he said in a statement.
He said the university is developing guidelines to deal with controversial donors and will try to create a culture in which employees believe they can act as whistle-blowers.
Members of MIT’s governing board on Friday reiterated their support for Reif’s leadership.
Ito, who resigned in September after an explosive New Yorker story said that he and others tried to keep Epstein’s funding quiet, declined to comment.
But his supporters said the report shows that university officials were aware of and blessed the donations and required that they be kept anonymous.
“They should not be scapegoating a single individual when it was systemic,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor. “We need to think about the institutional incentives to raise money and what those restraints should be.”
Epstein’s involvement with MIT first became public last summer after he committed suicide in the Manhattan jail cell, where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking of minors.
Since then, MIT has been in turmoil. Two researchers at MIT’s vaunted Media Lab resigned in protest over money that Ito took from Epstein for the university and for his own investments in tech startups. Students have protested on campus and disgruntled faculty have spoken out at community meetings, and some have called on Reif to step down.
Some female faculty at MIT expressed concerns that the institution would accept donations from a sex offender, questioned the university’s commitment to women academics, and demanded changes. Staff have complained that they are often bullied by star faculty and unable to speak out about concerns.
The report was “painful,” to read, said Nancy Hopkins, a retired MIT biology professor who helped draw attention to gender equity problems at the university in the late 1990s.
Hopkins said she was struck by how many women at MIT raised concerns about Epstein’s ties but that most of the decision-makers who approved the donations were men.
“It’s a demonstration perhaps of the importance of having greater diversity in key decision-makers at all levels of an organization,” Hopkins said. “It’s seems that Epstein’s crimes had little reality for those making the decisions.”
Epstein’s financial ties to MIT dated back to 2002, when he gave $100,000 to famed artificial intelligence professor Marvin Minsky. Minsky died in 2016.
Epstein courted connections with scientists and academics at several of the country’s most elite universities. He gave them money for their research, flew them on his private plane, invited them to lavish conferences on his island, and in some cases, connected them with even bigger funders.
But by 2012, after Epstein had been labeled a sex offender, many universities were rejecting his money. He wanted to see if MIT would balk, too, so he enlisted Lloyd to see if his donations would raise alarms at the university, according to the report.
“Im going to give you two 50K tranches to see if the line jingles,” Epstein wrote Lloyd in a e-mail, referring to any potential alarms going off at MIT. None did. In fact, MIT sent Epstein a thank you letter for the donation, signed off by Reif.
Separately, in February 2013, Linda Stone, a former Media Lab advisory council member, introduced Ito to Epstein at a TED Conference in California, and Ito chatted with him in a hallway. At the time, Epstein was barred from attending the TED conference, so he often met people in hallways and hotel lobbies, according to the report.
Epstein made a $100,000 donation to the Media Lab after the meeting, and it triggered multiple discussions among lab staff and central administration about how to handle the money and his future potential involvement.
Ito told investigators that he did his “due diligence” on Epstein, consulting Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte and other tech entrepreneurs, along with doing his own Google search.
“He has a tainted past,” Ito wrote Negroponte. “But Linda assures me that he’s awesome.”
According to the report, Negroponte responded, “I know him quite well. The person who is his closest friend is Marvin Minsky, who even visited him in jail.”
Some Media Lab staff at the time worried about Epstein’s reputation and raised concerns with Ito.
“Yes. I know his history and am treading carefully,” Ito responded according to the report. “I know many of his friends. The dinner at his house with . . . him Woody Allen and [a senior executive at the Hyatt Corporation]. It’s a weird web of billionaires.”
Senior administrators, including R. Gregory Morgan, the university’s former head lawyer; Jeffrey Newton, its former chief of fund-raising; and Israel Ruiz, the current executive vice president and treasurer, eventually decided that Ito and the Media Lab could take Epstein’s money, as long as it was in small amounts, and that the university and Epstein kept the donations anonymous, according to the report.
Senior administrators were concerned that Epstein would use his ties and financial gifts to MIT to launder his reputation.
Epstein didn’t abide by the request for anonymity and occasionally put out press releases touting his contributions to the university; however, it never sparked further review by MIT officials, the report noted.
Investigators noted that there are some holes in the report.
Some senior administrators could not recall whether there was a significant discussion about Epstein and his donations during a team retreat in 2015. At the time, Ito was in talks with Epstein to contribute $5 million to the Media Lab, far more than he had ever given.
Ruiz recalls describing his reservations about Epstein at the senior team meeting, which Reif attended, the report states.
But Reif has no recollection of that, according to the report. Other team members said they would have remembered if Epstein’s name had been mentioned with the words “sex-offender” or “pedophile.”
Ruiz may have mentioned Epstein, “but, if so, in a manner that was inadequate,” the report found.
MIT continued to handle Epstein’s contributions in the same way, until February 2019, after the Miami Herald ran a series of investigative stories detailing Epstein’s crimes. Over the course of several years, Epstein made visits to the Media Lab and even came to a memorial for Minsky.
The report noted that MIT still does not have a formal policy for accepting donations from controversial sources.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.