MIT’s president on Thursday disclosed that the school had received about $800,000 from foundations controlled by Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier who was charged with sex trafficking dozens of minors, and offered a “profound and humble’’ apology to Epstein’s victims on behalf of the university.
In a letter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, school president L. Rafael Reif said, “With hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts. No apology can undo that.”
Reif said he has asked for a group to be formed to look at “the facts around the Epstein donations and identify any lessons for the future, to review our current processes and to advise me on appropriate ways we might improve them.” He also pledged to commit a monetary amount equal to the funds MIT received from Epstein’s foundations to a charity that benefits Epstein’s victims or other victims of sexual abuse.
The statement — released Thursday night — follows days of controversy over Epstein’s donations to the MIT Media Lab. Two researchers said recently that they were severing their ties to the lab because of the donations.
Epstein, who was convicted in 2008 of procuring an underage girl for prostitution, was found dead this month in his cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was held on newly filed charges of sex trafficking of minors. A medical examiner ruled his death a suicide by hanging.
For decades, Epstein nurtured a reputation as a “science philanthropist” and gathered a coterie of biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and artificial intelligence researchers around him. He feted them on his private island and in his lavish homes, and funded their research.
The scientists were among the most prominent people in their fields and included professors at Harvard and MIT.
The decisions of MIT faculty regarding monetary gifts are “always subject to longstanding Institute processes and principles,” according to Reif’s letter.
“To my great regret despite following the processes that have served MIT well for many years, in this instance we have made a mistake of judgment,” he said.
Reif indicated that all of the monetary gifts from Epstein occurred over the span of about 20 years and went either to the MIT Media Lab or mechanical engineering professor Seth Lloyd.
In a post on Medium, Lloyd said he met Epstein at a dinner for scientists and their supporters in 2004 and discussed scientific questions during Epstein’s visits to Harvard University “over the next few years.” Epstein’s foundation, he said, gave him a grant to support his research.
Earlier this summer, federal prosecutors charged Epstein, 66, with sexually abusing dozens of girls between 2002 and 2005. The indictment renewed attention on how Epstein had escaped severe punishment in an investigation of sexual abuse more than a decade ago in Florida.
Epstein had avoided federal criminal charges in 2008 after prosecutors brokered a widely criticized deal that allowed him to plead guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor and serve 13 months in jail.
Lloyd, the MIT professor, said he visited Epstein during his prison term in Florida and that after his release, he resumed attending discussions Epstein convened with other scientists and accepted two grants from his foundation, one in 2012 and another in 2017.
“These were professional as well as moral failings,” Lloyd said in his apology. “The job of a scientist is to look for the truth, and the job of a teacher is to help people to empower themselves. I failed to do my job on both counts.”
Ito, the MIT Media Lab director, has acknowledged that he had invited Epstein to the Media Lab, traveled to the financier’s homes, and accepted money from him for the research center and Ito’s own investments after Epstein’s conviction.
Last week, Ito said he met Epstein in 2013 through a trusted business friend.
The media lab is known for developing robotic prosthetics to mimic the human gait and launching the online news giant Buzzfeed, among other initiatives.
Amid the fallout from the lab’s connections to Epstein, two researchers have cut ties with the research center. J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at the lab, said in a Wednesday statement that he was “profoundly disappointed in the decisions that Joi made, and that the Lab somehow allowed to happen.”
That statement came after Ethan Zuckerman, director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, told MIT officials of his plans to resign in protest over the lab’s ties to Epstein.
“I am ashamed of my institution today and starting the hard work of figuring out how to leave the Lab while taking care of my students and staff,” Zuckerman wrote in a note that was obtained by the Globe.
Reif said members of the MIT community were struggling with the fact some researchers had accepted money from Epstein.
“Because the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein are so shocking, it can be difficult to maintain a fair understanding about what individuals at MIT could have been expected to know at the time, but I hope we can offer these members of our community the reassurance of our compassionate understanding,’’ Reif said.
Thursday night, BethAnn McLaughlin, the founder of the nonprofit MeTooSTEM, said MIT still needs to address the culture that allowed the relationships with Epstein to develop.
McLaughlin, who won last year’s Disobedience Award from the Media Lab for her work on sexual harassment in science, said her organization plans to come to MIT in the coming weeks to talk to those affected by such issues.
“I don’t see anyone fired,” McLaughlin said. “I see them saying ‘we have a system in place.’ They have a failed system.”