He was a potential big-money donor, a Forbes-listed billionaire, and officials at the MIT Media Lab were intrigued. What came next was illuminating.
The person of interest that summer of 2016 was Bob Parsons, the founder of the Internet domain-registry site GoDaddy. Apparently worth $2.1 billion, Parsons had left GoDaddy before it joined the Media Lab as a funder in 2015 — but perhaps he could be convinced to contribute some of his own money to the innovative lab. So an MIT researcher e-mailed a short brief on Parsons, described as a “non-alumnus friend,” to officials at the media lab.
Soon an unidentified employee wrote back.
“Yeah I wouldn’t go [down] this path,” the person wrote, according to e-mails provided to the Globe by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit representing a former development associate at the lab. “He’s responsible for the sexist ads GoDaddy ran, and was also publicly shamed for hunting and killing elephants.”
A spokeswoman for Parsons said he has “never had any connection to, contact with, or interest in MIT.”
But the e-mails mulling Parsons’ giving potential, and his perceived liabilities as a donor, offer a glimpse into the typically hidden calculus that university fund-raisers, under pressure to bring in tremendous sums, undertake each day. Those internal negotiations are now in the spotlight following revelations that top MIT officials approved donations from Jeffrey Epstein even after he was convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008. Harvard also disclosed last week that Epstein had donated $9 million to the university between 1998 and 2007; the university said it had rejected a gift from Epstein after his 2008 conviction.
Epstein’s entanglements, which have caused ongoing embarrassment for the elite institutions, may end up spurring change in development offices nationwide.
“Epstein’s behavior, not just at Harvard, but elsewhere, raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow wrote in a letter to the school on Thursday. “I will be convening a group here at Harvard to review how we prevent these situations in the future. I also hope to engage our peer institutions to consider how we can collectively improve our processes.”
The thorny issue of taking big money from potential bad actors is not new: In recent years universities have been criticized for taking money from the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical company fueled the opioid crisis; and from Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who likely directed the murder of a Washington Post journalist last year.
Schools have also come under pressure for the political views of some donors, such as the conservative Koch brothers, who made their profits in the fossil fuel industry and whose donations to some universities have come with strings attached.
But Epstein’s donations may hasten changes in donor vetting that were already underway.
“As we see more and more colleges and universities grapple with removing donor names after the fact when news breaks of immoral behavior of donors, advancement offices are becoming more proactive with both research of their donors and the creation of policies to guide their institution’s ethical decision-making,” said Noah Drezner, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and the founding editor of the academic journal Philanthropy and Education.
Fund-raising experts said that in hindsight, Epstein presented a clear-cut case: Felons with a history of sex crimes should be an easy no. But the ethical dilemmas are not always so black and white.
“The murky ones are where you really have to begin weighing the alternatives,” said Gene Tempel, a professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and a former major fund-raiser for that school. “Can the institution withstand the assault on its integrity with this gift? Is it serious enough to really do us damage? And what will not get done if we don’t accept this gift?”
Most universities have an internal research team within the development office to delve into the backgrounds of potential donors, said Linda Durant, the vice president of development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a professional organization that publishes best fund-raising practices for universities to follow.
“They’ll comb through anything that is public information. They’ll provide a profile on that potential donor: how many homes they have, the [value] of those homes,” said Durant, who was previously a top development officer at Widener University. “Based on what their title is, they may be able to do a good estimate of what their salary is.” A donor file might end up including a whole range of information: what a donor’s major in college was, where he or she works, job history, if the donor serves on any boards. Of course, Durant said, the researcher will keep an eye out for any hint of illegal behavior, but university researchers don’t have access to background checks or law enforcement files. They research, but they don’t exactly vet.
And although thousands of institutions follow the best practices put forth by Durant’s organization, employees can still struggle to apply those policies to blurry, real-life situations.
“At MIT, it was sort of made known that we should try to be ethical within development, but it wasn’t completely defined — who we could go talk to, what the possible steps would be, what is actually crossing the line,” Signe Swenson, the MIT whistle-blower whose e-mails the Globe obtained, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
In dealing with Epstein, officials at MIT successfully evaded the choice between having to accept or outright reject a donation from such a problematic donor, instead taking a murky middle path where the university accepted funds from Epstein but listed them as anonymous. MIT president L. Rafael Reif wrote in a letter to the school last week that marking the money as anonymous was meant to ensure that Epstein could “not use gifts to MIT for publicity or to enhance his own reputation.” But critics say the anonymity instead simply shielded MIT from public scrutiny.
“Accepting money anonymously when you wouldn’t accept it in the person’s name automatically suggests that there’s a serious problem here,” said Deni Elliott, a professor and the author of “The Kindness of Strangers,” a book about ethically questionable transactions in higher education.
The staffers who fund-raise for universities typically operate behind the scenes, and current directors of development offices were not eager to go on the record about how they make their high-stakes decisions. The Globe contacted 20 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst, to ask how they research and vet their major donors. Only Skidmore College was willing to make a development officer available for an interview.
Some universities rely primarily on people they already know well — their alumni networks offer built-in reassurance about a donor’s background.
“For most institutions, that’s going to work just fine, because they’re not apt to receive a gift offer from an individual just out of the blue,” said Tempel, who used to raise money for Indiana University.
“But it could happen at one of the really prestigious universities, because somebody may be trying to cleanse his or her name or establish his or her reputation. So those institutions are extra careful.”
Even if researchers provide a careful rundown of the red flags associated with a donor, the pressure to secure funding in “the increasing arms race of multibillion-dollar campaigns” is high, said Drezner. “Therefore, some might be willing to put their blinders [on] when it comes to making the decision to reject a gift.”
In the midst of a national conversation about whether to remove the names of slaveholders from university buildings, some schools also attempt to protect themselves against future egregious behavior by donors.
“The college always reserves the right to remove the name of the donor in certain circumstances,” said Sean Campbell, Skidmore College’s vice president for advancement. “I think more and more institutions are doing that today.”
Some universities have argued that taking money from people with unsavory histories is not necessarily wrong, since universities will put that money to better, more noble use. But when bad actors donate to prestigious universities like MIT, they inevitably purchase value in return, said Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
“What the universities offered him was a trade: respectability for money,” Giridharadas said. “For people like Jeffrey Epstein, once that trade is achieved, what you are doing is restoring their ability to commit that crime again.”