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The Jeffrey Epstein donations: Is an apology from the MIT president good enough?

MIT’s ties to the late Jeffrey Epstein, a major donor to the Media Lab, drew students to a protest rally.
MIT’s ties to the late Jeffrey Epstein, a major donor to the Media Lab, drew students to a protest rally.Shirley Leung/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

They knew.

In his most recent letter about the unfolding scandal over MIT’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, university president Rafael Reif said officials had “limited facts” about the late financier’s crimes when the institution began accepting gifts from him in 2012.

But really, how could MIT not have known the following?

■  That Epstein in a controversial deal with Florida prosecutors pled guilty in 2008 to two charges of soliciting a prostitute, including one involving a minor.

■  That by the time Epstein was released from prison in 2009, after serving 13 months, more than a dozen civil lawsuits had been filed by women who alleged they were molested by him when they were underage. Some victims were as young as 14.


■  That Epstein had to register in New York in 2011 as the highest-level sex offender.

All of this information was readily available — from the pages of the Palm Beach Post to The New York Times. You don’t need a degree from MIT to figure out how bad Epstein was. You could have just Googled him.

Of course, they knew.

No matter how Reif wants to spin it today, university officials knew that it would be a PR nightmare if word ever got out that Epstein was a regular donor to the MIT Media Lab. That was clear from a bombshell report in The New Yorker that exposed the secrecy and how former Media Lab director Joi Ito worked to keep Epstein’s money hidden by marking donations anonymous.

The Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes later reported that Ito had hardly acted alone; top Massachusetts Institute of Technology officials worked closely with Ito to ensure Epstein’s gifts didn’t draw attention.

Ito began courting the multimillionaire in 2013, raising about $525,000 via Epstein’s foundations and perhaps millions more by using his connections.


Ito resigned on Sept. 7 .

Epstein also donated money to MIT professor Seth Lloyd in 2012, and Reif signed the thank-you letter.

They knew, but still didn’t care.

“You don’t have to think hard about whether you want any connection to Jeffrey Epstein,” said Wendy Murphy, an attorney who teaches sexual violence law at New England Law Boston and is a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor. “What kind of child prostitution is OK with MIT’s list of values?”

In his letter last week, Reif wrote that senior members of his team were aware of Epstein’s gifts starting in 2013 and raised concerns.

“They knew in general terms about Epstein’s history — that he had been convicted and had served a sentence and that Joi believed that he had stopped his criminal behavior,” Reif wrote. “They accepted Joi’s assessment of the situation. Of course, they did not know what we all know about Epstein now.”

Here’s the thing about people convicted of sex crimes: They have to register as sex offenders because there’s a high risk they will re-offend.

Reif went on to reveal that Epstein gifts were discussed “at at least one of MIT’s regular senior team meetings, and I was present.”

So why didn’t he say something, do something, then?

The truth is what we know about Epstein today is what we knew about him in 2008 and 2009. We knew the FBI and others investigated him for sex trafficking of minors and that he was able to negotiate a sweetheart deal on lesser charges.


“There is nothing new now. It’s all the same allegations, everything,” said Florida attorney Spencer Kuvin, who represented three of Epstein’s victims, including a 14-year-old who was ordered to strip naked and perform a sex act.

What is different is the same allegations are taking on new meaning in the post-me-too era. In 2018, some victims began to come forward to tell their stories to Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, who spent a year re-examining Epstein’s case. A federal judge ruled in February that Epstein’s original agreement with prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Right Act by not informing his victims about the deal ahead of time. Authorities began to once again interview potential Epstein victims from the 2000s.

In July, the US attorney in New York charged Epstein with sex trafficking of minors. At his court hearing, one of Epstein’s lawyers called the new allegations “ancient stuff” and a “redo” by the government.

The 66-year-old Epstein was being held in a federal facility in Manhattan when he was found dead in August. His death has been ruled a suicide by hanging.

“I am aware that we could and should have asked more questions about Jeffrey Epstein and about his interactions with Joi,” 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 offenses or the harm to his young victims. I take responsibility for those errors.”


MIT has hired the law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate the university’s ties to Epstein. Last week’s letter was Reif’s fourth to the campus in less than a month. Reif in his first letter offered “a profound and humble apology” to Epstein’s victims. He committed to raising an amount equal to the funds MIT had received from Epstein, money that would be donated to a charity that will benefit his victims or other victims of sexual abuse.

It will now be up to the school’s board to determine whether saying sorry is enough. Ultimately, how Reif handles the Epstein donations and its fallout reflects how the university values women.

At any organization, the culture is set from the top. The infection that started in the Media Lab has now spread to another lab after visiting MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman asserted in an e-mail to colleagues last week that one of Epstein’s underage victims had presented herself as “entirely willing” to have sex.

Stallman resigned on Monday.

Who should be next?

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.