More than 60 of MIT’s leading female faculty members raised alarms about the university’s ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein in a letter Wednesday, and several later questioned the school’s commitment to women academics in a tense meeting with president L. Rafael Reif.
In the nearly two-hour faculty gathering to discuss Epstein’s donations to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the university leadership’s handling of the issue, Reif offered an emotional apology and acknowledged that the university’s culture had led it to accept money from the convicted sex offender.
“I understand that I have let you down and damaged your trust in me and that our actions have injured both the institute’s reputation and the fabric of our community,” Reif said according to a statement released by the university. “I am deeply sorry.”
Reif also spoke about what he has heard from women on campus, saying the Epstein controversy was a “last-straw moment,’’ and to many it was the “latest example of how many in our community, and the tech world in general, devalue the lives, experiences, and contributions of women and girls.’’
“I am humbled that it took this cascade of misjudgments for me to truly see this persistent dynamic and appreciate its full impact. It’s now clear to me that the culture that made possible the mistakes around Jeffrey Epstein has prevailed for much too long at MIT.’’
The meeting was Reif’s first face-to-face encounter with faculty over the Epstein controversy. The crowd spilled into an extra room.
Reif said MIT is doing a broad review of how it evaluates donors and whether the university’s policies need to change. He also acknowledged that MIT is facing deep questions over fund-raising and whom it should take money from, at a time when federal funding for research is shrinking and the fortunes of private funders are expanding.
Still, many women said MIT’s involvement with Epstein points to broader problems at the nation’s leading university for scientific research.
The decision by MIT leaders to court Epstein and take his money, despite his criminal history, and then conceal the relationship is “profoundly disturbing,” according to a letter read aloud at the Wednesday meeting by Heather Paxson, an anthropology professor, and Lisa Parks, a comparative media studies professor. The letter was drafted with input from more than 30 tenured female faculty members and signed by more than 60 professors by Wednesday afternoon.
Epstein donated to MIT over a period of 20 years, and many of those contributions came after he was registered as a sex offender following his 2008 conviction for soliciting a minor for prostitution. Epstein was sentenced to a 13-month jail term for that crime.
Epstein was found dead in August in his jail cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was being held on new charges of sex trafficking of minors.
“How can MIT’s leadership be trusted when it appears that child prostitution and sex trafficking can be ignored in exchange for a financial contribution?” the letter from the female academics reads.
The women said that too often MIT’s fund-raising efforts sideline women and that the Epstein controversy highlighted gender equity problems. For example, this academic year only 266 of 1,066 faculty members are women, and only 21 are women of color, according to the letter. “Members of our community have been left feeling undervalued, deceived, and unsafe,” the letter said.
But some professors on Wednesday also defended Reif and MIT’s leadership, arguing that faculty and research must be funded, and determining which donors are appropriate is a difficult task, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Boston Globe.
One professor argued that while mistakes were made, MIT did nothing illegal.
MIT has been rocked in recent weeks by revelations that Epstein donated and helped recruit other big-name funders to the university.
Much of Epstein’s entanglements were centered around MIT’s Media Lab, where its former director, Joi Ito, acknowledged taking $525,000 from the financier for university research and $1.2 million for his own venture funds.
Earlier this month, Ito resigned after an explosive New Yorker article revealed that Epstein was far more involved in the Media Lab than Ito first revealed and that Ito worked to conceal Epstein’s ties.
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 Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Epstein also visited the Media Lab and brought young women with him, according to the New Yorker article.
Reif last week also acknowledged that he signed a 2012 letter to 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 Media Lab, even though the financier was considered a disqualified donor. Reif said MIT officials decided to record Epstein’s gifts as anonymous to prevent him from using his connections to the university to whitewash his reputation.
He told faculty that he signs dozens of letters and did not recognize Epstein’s name when he signed the letter to him.
But the fallout at MIT from Epstein has extended beyond the donations. Earlier this week, Richard M. Stallman, an MIT computer scientist and a pioneer in the free software movement, resigned after he posted controversial comments about one of Epstein’s victims, who had testified in court documents that she was coerced into having sex with a now-deceased MIT professor.
Several professors at Wednesday’s meeting called for greater transparency about who is donating money to MIT.
Edmund Bertschinger, an MIT physics professor, said he was dismayed “that MIT took the drastic step of accepting money from a disqualified donor.” Bertschinger said MIT needs to explain how often this happened with other donors.
Reif said that since he played a role in the problem, he feels responsible for making repairs. “We need to stop looking away from bad behavior and start taking the time to see what it costs us as a community,” Reif said. “This moment of crisis must be the moment of reckoning — and a turn towards real accountability.”
Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com.