As chairman of MIT’s board of trustees, Robert Millard could be the most powerful man on campus. Yet when it came to Jeffrey Epstein and whether the university should cultivate the convicted sex offender as a major donor, Millard in 2016 determined that it wasn’t in his job description.
“He did not believe it was appropriate for him, as Chairman, to interfere or say ‘no.’ That was the responsibility of the administration,” according to a little-noticed section in a 61-page report from the law firm Goodwin Procter on how and why the university kept taking money from Epstein.
We know what happened next.
Administration officials — three members of MIT president Rafael Reif’s senior team — continued to knowingly accept donations from Epstein. They went out of their way to keep the money secret by requiring his donations to be marked “anonymous,” out of fear they would make the university look bad if word ever got out that the university had ties to the disgraced New York financier.
Word did get out last summer, after federal prosecutors picked up Epstein on a new charge of sex trafficking. In August, he hanged himself in a New York jail cell. The fallout over MIT’s handling of the affair has been brutal, rocking the campus and staining the school’s reputation.
It also forced the renowned MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito to resign.
Much of the scrutiny has focused on what the president did and did not know about Epstein. But what would have happened if Millard had gone to Reif and asked these two questions: Should MIT be taking money from Epstein? Should the university have a policy about controversial donors?
Here’s what Millard got wrong: He mistook intervening in the matter as micromanaging. The issue of whether MIT associates itself with an unsavory character goes to the core of the chairman’s job: shaping the values and mission of the institution.
In a statement e-mailed to the Globe late Thursday, Millard said:
“After I was approached by Joi Ito around the solicitation of potential donations from Jeffrey Epstein, I made inquiries with MIT staff and based on their feedback, determined this was a decision for the Office of Resource Development to make a determination around. I was unaware that any donations or visits from Jeffrey Epstein had taken place and declined to participate in the cultivation of Jeffrey Epstein as a potential donor.”
Millard further explained:
“I have always approached my responsibility as Chairman to handle governance, not administration. Had I known he was a pedophile, I would have taken a very different approach and directly intervened.”
The problem with Millard’s explanation, said Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general, is that as chairman Millard should have been thinking about “what’s the right thing to do, not whether you have the right to do it.” Harshbarger, senior counsel at Casner & Edwards — focusing on corporate governance for universities, nonprofits, and for-profits — said MIT is in the mess it’s in because too many people looked the other way. “Nobody there wanted to ask too many questions,” he said. “Nobody really wanted to find out.”
Millard, according to the narrative laid out in the Goodwin investigation, had multiple chances to sound the alarm bell on Epstein.
The first time was in October 2016, when Millard and other members of MIT’s executive committee were in Silicon Valley with Ito and other faculty. Ito, according to the investigation, was a driving force behind developing Epstein as a donor, hoping to tap into the financier’s network of rich friends who could donate millions of dollars to MIT.
“Ito had a brief conversation with Chairman Millard and discovered that Millard had met Epstein decades earlier,” the report said. “Later during the California trip, Ito and Chairman Millard apparently had a ‘long conversation’ about Epstein, possibly during a bus ride.”
Millard’s second chance to raise red flags came Nov. 3, 2016, when Ito followed up with an e-mail to Millard: “Can you help me figure out how to get money from JE [Epstein]?”
On the same day, according to the report, Ito e-mailed Epstein about the Millard connection and how the three of them should get together in Boston or New York City.
Several days later, Epstein e-mailed Millard directly. asking him to have dinner.
Millard declined Epstein’s invitation, according to the report, “but he was aware that Ito was attempting to cultivate Epstein as a potential donor.”
Millard graduated from MIT in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and went on to Harvard for his MBA. Millard lives in New York and made his money on Wall Street. He has been chairman of the MIT board since 2014.
Millard, according to his spokesman, met with Epstein about three decades ago on a handful of business interactions but had no contact with him until Epstein reached out in 2016.
The Goodwin investigation found “no evidence to support Ito’s assertion that Millard and Epstein were ever friends.”
When Millard contacted the MIT campaign office for files pertaining to the financier, they were marked “anonymous” and the school database did not disclose a history of his giving, according to the report. In all, MIT accepted $850,000 from Epstein, most of it after his 2008 conviction for soliciting a prostitute, including one who was a minor.
The report does not state whether Millard knew about Epstein’s sex-offender status and allegations of pedophilia back then, but a resource development director had “advised Chairman Millard during the late 2016 time period to steer clear of Epstein.”
According to the report, Ito kept contacting Millard into early 2017 about Epstein. It said Millard did not discuss Epstein with members of MIT’s senior team, nor was the chairman involved in any decision to accept donations from Epstein.
“Chairman Millard told us that he was trying to distance himself from the situation in a polite way: he wanted nothing to do with Epstein,” according to the report.
Millard’s ambivalence on Epstein in 2016 speaks volumes about the type of culture that he has promoted as chairman at MIT. It explains how Reif, the president, can hide behind plausible deniability — saying that he was contemporaneously unaware of Epstein’s donations to MIT and had no role in approving them. It explains how in the aftermath of Epstein there have been few repercussions beyond Ito’s resignation and one professor, Seth Lloyd, being put on leave.
In my last column I wrote that if accountability matters to MIT, Reif must go. Millard should depart with him.
To move beyond the scandal, MIT needs leaders who have the trust of the community. Reif and Millard have lost that trust.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.