MIT president L. Rafael Reif acknowledged Thursday that he signed a 2012 letter to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, thanking him for a donation to a professor at the school, and that senior members of his administration approved Epstein’s gifts to the MIT Media Lab even after Epstein had been convicted of a sex offense and served time in jail.
Reif’s statement, posted on the university website, included the university’s first public acknowledgment that the practice of recording Epstein’s contributions as anonymous, thereby shielding them from public scrutiny, was not a rogue coverup of a satellite development office, but instead was done at the direction of top MIT officials.
And in a sign that the reckoning over Epstein’s entanglements with elite institutions is far from over, Harvard on Thursday separately announced that it had received $2.4 million more from Epstein than previously disclosed, bringing the total amount that university received from 1998 to 2007 to $9 million.
Epstein was convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008.
“To date, we have uncovered no gifts received from Epstein or his foundation following his guilty plea,” Harvard president Larry Bacow wrote in a letter to the community. “Moreover, we specifically rejected a gift from Epstein following his conviction in 2008.”
The letter said that a former Harvard faculty member, Stephen Kosslyn, had designated Epstein as a visiting fellow in the department of psychology in 2005 and that the university was “seeking to learn more about the nature of that appointment.”
The majority of Epstein’s Harvard contributions have been spent, according to Bacow, except for $186,000. The university said it would donate that money to nonprofits working to support victims of human trafficking and sexual assault. Harvard also said it would be reviewing “how we prevent these situations in the future.”
At MIT, officials have hired the Goodwin Procter law firm to review the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s donations, and Reif said the latest revelations were uncovered by the firm. He suggested that he had been unaware of his own involvement until the firm alerted him to it.
“The Goodwin Procter team has found a copy of a standard acknowledgment letter thanking Jeffrey Epstein for a gift to [professor] Seth Lloyd,” Reif wrote. “I apparently signed this letter on August 16, 2012, about six weeks into my presidency. Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature.”
Reif also noted, “Information shared with us last night also indicates that Epstein gifts were discussed at at least one of MIT’s regular senior team meetings, and I was present.”
A New Yorker story last weekend rocked the university by revealing that Joi Ito, the charismatic head of the Media Lab, had solicited contributions from Epstein even after Epstein was a convicted sex offender, and had advised others to record those funds as anonymous. Ito resigned on Saturday.
Earlier this week, the Globe reported that top officials were copied on Ito’s e-mails about Epstein’s contributions. Now Reif’s letter confirms a broader institutional policy of accepting Epstein’s money, even though he was listed as disqualified in MIT’s database, and obscuring his name in internal records.
Reif wrote that in 2013, senior members of his team learned of Epstein’s gifts to the Media Lab and spoke with Ito about them.
“He asked for permission to retain this initial gift, and members of my senior team allowed it,” Reif wrote. The practice of making sure that money was recorded as anonymous originated within Reif’s senior leadership, not at the Media Lab.
“Because the members of my team involved believed it was important that Epstein not use gifts to MIT for publicity or to enhance his own reputation, they asked Joi to agree to make clear to Epstein that he could not put his name on them publicly. These guidelines were provided to and apparently followed by the Media Lab,” Reif wrote.
The statement by Reif, who served as the university’s provost before becoming president in 2012, that he was unaware of his own administration’s knowledge of Epstein’s gifts has strained the credulity of some students and critics.
“I guess it’s technically possible to forget about something like that,” said Alonso Espinosa Dominguez, a senior math major at MIT who is helping to organize a rally Friday afternoon to protest the university’s ties with Epstein. But, he said, “After several weeks of dealing with this controversy, you would think that he would have realized by now something as basic as that.”
“He also seemed to have needed the help of this independent investigator to remind him that his senior team knew about Joi Ito’s involvement with Epstein and had approved it,” Dominguez said.
Members of MIT Students Against War and No Dark Money at MIT, two groups that oppose the way the university has handled Epstein’s donations and are hosting Friday’s rally, are pushing for the resignations of senior university officials, as well as a revamping of the way the university accepts donations.
“Every senior administrator who knew about these donations should resign,” said Nathan Foster, 23, a resident of Somerville and a spokesman for No Dark Money at MIT.
Foster also said that his group, which has a few dozen members, believes that a panel of students, faculty, and staff should have a voice about which donors the university accepts money from moving forward.
“This isn’t a matter of reevaluating something that was considered OK at the time,” Foster said. “The donations were considered so toxic at the time” that university officials insisted they remain anonymous.
Reif, in his letter to MIT, seemed to dispute that his administration knew how controversial the donations were. “Of course they did not know what we all know about Epstein now,” he 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.”
Despite Epstein’s conviction in 2008, Ito has said he wooed Epstein as a donor for the lab when he met him in 2013. Epstein was found dead in August in his jail cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking of minors.
Ito has said that the Media Lab took $525,000 from Epstein, and media reports suggest that he took $1.2 million from the financier for his own venture funds. Ito has also said he traveled to Epstein’s homes.
But Epstein’s involvement with the Media Lab extended far beyond that. Ito and other MIT employees wrote in e-mails that Epstein had acted as an intermediary to help the Media Lab secure major donations, including $5.5 million from investor Leon Black, founder of one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and $2 million from Gates.
“I think it was right for Joi Ito to step down,” Foster said. But, he added, “now that we know that so many more senior administrators were intimately involved in the decision to accept Jeffrey Epstein’s money, it is not sufficient.”