Apparently accountability isn’t taught at MIT — and it won’t be as long as president Rafael Reif remains at the helm.
That’s my conclusion after reading a devastating 61-page report by the law firm Goodwin Procter that details how the president’s inner circle — including right-hand man and treasurer Israel Ruiz — knowingly accepted donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Not only that, but Epstein, who died in August, was allowed to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus at least nine times from 2013 to 2017 without alerting campus police. As a Level 3 sex offender (the category with the highest risk of re-offending), Epstein should have been monitored on a campus filled with young women around the age of his alleged victims. The lack of monitoring, MIT officials now say, was “completely unacceptable.”
That lapse alone should have been reason enough for Reif to resign, but instead the report goes out of its way to absolve the president. The investigation found that the university accepted 10 donations totaling $850,000 from the disgraced financier. Most of that money was collected after Epstein’s 2008 conviction for soliciting a prostitute, including one who was a minor.
The investigation reaches an unsatisfying conclusion: Reif was unaware of the Epstein donations and had no role in approving them. And while three members of Reif’s senior team knew about the Epstein money, they did not violate any university policy or process because there are no rules on how to handle controversial donors.
Put it another way, MIT doesn’t believe people can exercise common sense and good judgment on their own.
It’s not that Epstein money slipped into the school’s accounts. In fact, it was much discussed and debated, according to e-mails and interviews compiled by Goodwin. When rank-and-file staffers raised objections, their complaints were dismissed.
As for Reif, how is it that he escaped the ax? Plausible deniability.
What’s also preventing a presidential exit is that at least five people who either cultivated Epstein as a donor or tried to cover up the practice have been punished, left the university, or will soon move on.
The MIT Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito resigned in September; and engineering professor Seth Lloyd has been put on leave. Two of the three senior members of Reif’s team who knew about Epstein — general counsel Gregory Morgan and resource development vice president Jeffrey Newton — are no longer at MIT. Ruiz, the third member, announced in December that he will be leaving his role in the spring.
Still, evidence that Reif was clueless about Epstein is slim. Perhaps only the MIT board is gullible enough to believe he knew nothing.
Consider these three passages from the report:
■ “Other members of the Senior Team, including President Reif, have no recollection of a discussion of Epstein at any Senior Team meeting. But they do not rule out the possibility that such a discussion of a controversial donor could have occurred, albeit briefly.”
■ “President Reif wrote ‘Epstein – Joi Ito’ on his copy of the agenda for the April 28, 2015 meeting. At his interview, President Reif could not recall why he made this note on his copy of the agenda. None of the other Senior Team attendees could recall a discussion of Epstein at that meeting, though the meeting notes did include a mention of Ito in the context of a discussion of the Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative, which, coincidentally, was of interest to Epstein.”
■ “On August 26, 2019, President Reif noted in an e-mail to Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Suzanne Glassburn, ‘I don’t remember anyone saying anything about what JE [Epstein] was convicted for and served prison for . . . I have never heard of the guy and his reputation before, and even after, until he got back in the news a few months ago.”
News of Epstein’s ties to MIT broke last summer, soon after the US attorney in New York charged the financier with sex trafficking of minors. Epstein was being held in a federal jail when he hanged himself in August.
The report also tries to explain how very smart people at MIT might have been confused about Epstein’s transgressions. In the case of Ito, he relied on Epstein’s Wikipedia entry, which included conflicting information about his crimes.
When MIT Media staff tried to warn Ito about Epstein’s past, Ito reached out in March 2013 to others for advice, including Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte.
“I know him quite well,” Negroponte responded. “I would take Berlusconi’s money, so why not Jeff.”
In case you don’t recall, Silvio Berlusconi is the former prime minister of Italy who, at the time, was on trial for allegedly hiring an underage prostitute. He was convicted, but the ruling was later overturned.
Ito’s Media Lab accepted $525,000 from Epstein, with the hope for millions of dollars more. Reif’s senior team not only approved the donations but added stipulations, including that the money be recorded as anonymous, so Epstein couldn’t use it to “whitewash” his reputation.
Another rule: No gifts over $10 million from Epstein, to avoid attracting attention.
In yet another lengthy letter to the campus about how MIT botched the Epstein case, Reif acknowledges mistakes were made, but says he is the leader who can make things right.
“I feel a deep responsibility to repair what has been broken,” Reif wrote in a letter released Friday along with the report.
He also wrote about how “an enduring MIT value is the willingness to face hard facts.”
The hard facts are that the buck should have stopped with the university’s president. Accountability matters. If MIT truly wants to repair the damage, it can’t keep in place a leader who has lost the trust of his community.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.