Before Jeffrey Epstein was disgraced — before he was arrested this month and charged with sex trafficking dozens of minors, before he received a slap on the wrist in 2008 for molesting girls at his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. — he aimed to be a Harvard man.
He contributed millions to the university, reportedly funding the construction of Harvard Hillel’s building, and helping to establish the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. He frequented an office blocks from campus, and flew up in his private plane to host seminars there with some of Harvard’s most prominent professors, according to Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus professor of law at Harvard who served as one of Epstein’s lawyers. Among Epstein’s close associates, according to a 2003 Harvard Crimson article, were former president Lawrence Summers, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky, and professor emeritus of psychology Stephen Kosslyn.
“He had a close connection to Harvard,” said Dershowitz, who helped negotiate the generous plea deal with prosecutors in Florida. Two women have alleged that Epstein directed them to have sex with Dershowitz; he denies ever meeting them.
Epstein savored his university ties. He was photographed wearing a crimson sweatshirt, “Harvard” emblazoned in white letters across his chest. As recently as 2014, Epstein’s foundation issued press releases referring to him as a “Harvard mogul,” and “renowned science and Harvard investor.”
But Epstein was not, exactly, a Harvard mogul. He was not a Harvard alum, a Harvard professor, or a Harvard parent.
Instead, he seems to have simply chosen Harvard to be his, adding it to a collection of prized objects that would reflect glory back upon him, like the photographs of famous people displayed in his New York home, the lavish properties he amassed from Manhattan to the Caribbean, and the young girls he allegedly hunted down. Some have likened him to a sinister Jay Gatsby, whose stories about himself don’t always line up with the truth.
Now that Epstein is once again facing criminal charges alleging that he sexually abused a vast network of underage girls, his lengthy relationship with Harvard, and his touting of that relationship, shine a light on the role the university played, however unintentionally, in burnishing Epstein’s reputation and status even as he committed serious crimes.
“The Epstein case makes very clear what Harvard and other institutions like it are selling: reflected prestige and reputational glow to people who need it, which is often people who have sinned greatly and violated law or conscience,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of the book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
“If you do something awful, and you need not to make things right, but to make your reputation change, Harvard is like a drive-through providing that service,” Giridharadas said.
Epstein was charged by federal prosecutors in New York this week with sexually abusing dozens of girls between 2002 and 2005. He had been accused of similar crimes in Palm Beach, but in that case, prosecutors ended up negotiating a secret deal with Epstein’s lawyers that required him to plead guilty to just two prostitution charges in state court. The Miami Herald, in a blockbuster investigation last year, reported that more than 80 women said they were victimized by Epstein.
But at least one thing is clear: For decades, Harvard was a central part of Epstein’s story.
Even after he was arrested and served time in the county stockade — a brief 13-month stint, during which he left six days a week to work from an office in West Palm Beach — Epstein continued to shower money on Harvard.
In 2012, he established a private foundation called “Gratitude America Ltd.,” which contributed at least $100,000 to the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770, a Harvard performing arts organization, according to The Daily Beast, and contributed more than $100,000 to a nonprofit run by Harvard professor Elisa New, the wife of former president Summers. Both donations suggested a kind of insider status, the type of gift that would most likely come from an alum with a hearty dose of nostalgia for his college days.
New told WBUR that she was “profoundly troubled” by the latest allegations against Epstein, and that the funds had already been spent. The Hasty Pudding Institute did not respond to requests for comment.
Epstein, who took some classes at Cooper Union and New York University, does not have a college degree, according to a 2002 profile of him in New York magazine. In any case, his major institutional contributions to Harvard may have been largely talk.
The New York Times reported in 1991 that four donors, including Epstein and his close friend Leslie Wexner, pledged to raise $2 million to fund a center for Hillel, the Jewish student organization at Harvard. A plaque inside the center listed Epstein, Wexner, and Wexner’s wife as donors of the Rosovsky Naming Gift, the Crimson reported in 2003. Today, the plaque is no longer there, according to a person familiar with Harvard’s Hillel; Hillel did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Another gift of Epstein’s to the university remains foggy: He publicly pledged $30 million to establish the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, run by professor Martin Nowak, in 2003, according to the Crimson. But a Harvard source said that Epstein actually gave just $6.5 million.
But even if the promised money never arrived, Epstein successfully cultivated close relationships with preeminent professors, partly through funding individual research projects. Multiple professors told the Crimson in 2003 that Epstein was funding some of their work.
Epstein also regularly hosted private lunches and seminars in an office at One Brattle Square, where he invited world-renowned faculty members to share their work, said Dershowitz, who sometimes attended, and described the sessions as “very intellectual, very academic.”
It is not clear when, or whether, Epstein and his foundation stopped funding individual faculty. A number of scholarly papers published between 2006 and 2008 contain a brief sentence in the acknowledgments section: “The Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED) at Harvard University is sponsored by Jeffrey Epstein.” And as late as 2012, a Harvard website detailing the schedule for professor George Church’s lab lists a 5 p.m. meeting with Epstein in Nowak’s office — a year after Epstein was required to register as a high-risk and potentially dangerous sex offender in New York. Neither Church nor Nowak responded to requests for comment.
Rick Friedman, a longtime photojournalist in Boston, attended one session where Harvard’s luminaries gathered at the behest of Epstein. In September 2004, Friedman was hired by a German magazine to photograph an end-of-summer event hosted by Epstein, a meeting of minds Friedman called “absolutely surreal.”
“I photograph a lot of academics,” Friedman said. “Here was an incredible group of noted academics who were all going to be together.” The frames from that day show Dershowitz, Epstein, Summers, and others talking and laughing.
“It’s just like a bunch of friends having a good time, just all hanging out,” Friedman said.
But after Epstein was accused of crimes, most of his academic friends scattered.
“Once the charges were made, certainly my relationship with him became entirely lawyer-client,” Dershowitz said. “We never had another seminar again, or never had any connection with the Harvard people.”
Zoe Greenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.