L. Rafael Reif declared in a speech last year that successful MIT students and university presidents have one trait in common: They must love very hard problems.
“This masochism is essential,” said Reif, MIT’s president since 2012.
Now, Reif, an electrical engineer by training, is facing his own set of very hard problems and the most significant test of his leadership since climbing the ranks from MIT professor to president.
The university that Reif, 69, came to nearly 40 years ago is in turmoil over its extensive and secretive ties to Jeffrey Epstein. The disgraced financier committed suicide in the Manhattan jail cell where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking minors.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Reif is at the center of the storm: criticized for his shifting and confusing explanations about his own knowledge of Epstein’s connections to the revered institution and, more broadly, for overseeing a campus culture uninviting to women. Some students and faculty have demanded that he resign.
“If I were him, I would step aside for the good of the institute,” said Leigh Royden, a geology and geophysics professor, who has taught at MIT for 35 years and was involved in a seminal 1999 university report on the status of women faculty in science. “He has lost our trust. He has lost his moral voice. And there’s no going back from that.”
But his supporters, and there are many at MIT and in academic circles, suggest Reif is as well-equipped as anyone to lead the university through this crucial moment. They point to his broad, positive influence on MIT, pushing the university to become more entrepreneurial, more globally engaged, more aggressive in expanding online education. Reif, a son of Jewish refugees who fled to Venezuela, has also made MIT more accessible to students like him, who grew up poor.
“Rafael knows MIT as well as anybody can know it. More importantly, MIT knows him,” said Lawrence Bacow, Harvard University’s president and a former MIT chancellor who has known Reif as a friend for decades. “He is a person of extraordinary decency. I have full faith and confidence in him.”
Harvard is also conducting a review of its own Epstein gifts and entanglements.
The troubles at MIT boiled over after The New Yorker revealed earlier this month that Epstein was far more involved at the university than initially disclosed and that MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and others had kept those ties hidden.
In the weeks since, the controversy has broadened. Ito, whom Reif hired, and MIT scientist Richard Stallman have resigned from the university. MIT has hired a law firm to review the Epstein ties. Reif has acknowledged that he signed a letter when he was just weeks into his presidency thanking Epstein, who was then a convicted sex offender, for a donation and that top university officials knew about efforts to take Epstein’s money and keep the gifts anonymous.
Last week more than 60 female faculty members signed a stinging letter urging Reif to improve the culture of MIT and questioned the administration’s commitment to gender equity.
“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 said.
Reif, who earned about $1.1 million in 2016, declined to be interviewed for this story. The controversy appears to have hit him hard.
“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 read from prepared remarks during a faculty meeting last week. “This moment of crisis must be the moment of reckoning — and a turn towards real accountability.”
But Reif’s critics are skeptical. They say he has been far too focused on MIT’s bottom line and commercial efforts, from constructing buildings to competing with the technology startups coming out of Silicon Valley. Under his leadership, MIT seems to have gone astray, they said.
MIT has in recent years engaged with ethically dubious donors, such as Epstein and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is suspected in the brutal killing of a journalist — and paid less attention to the culture and environment of its campus, these critics argue.
Jonathan King, a professor of biology who has worked at MIT since 1970, said he sees these latest revelations about the university’s entanglements with Epstein as indicative of a larger problem with Reif.
“We had great hope for him,” said King, who was a vocal critic of Reif welcoming the Saudi crown prince to the university in 2018. But, King said, Reif has been a consistent disappointment.
“He stuck to the money,” King said.
Reif grew up the youngest of four sons. His father, a photographer, left Eastern Europe for South America in the late 1930s and worked multiple jobs to support his family. Reif’s two oldest brothers went to work after elementary school because the family “didn’t have anything to eat,” he recounted in 2012 when he became president.
Reif finished high school then went to college, where he planned to follow a practical path.
“Like anybody who comes from a poor family, I need[ed] to get a job. So I got a degree in engineering, which I chose as a career because I thought it was something practical,” Reif told the Business Times of Singapore in 2015. “You could get a job as an engineer at the time.”
But Reif discovered that he preferred teaching engineering and attended Stanford University to get his graduate degrees. He had planned to return to Venezuela as a postdoctoral scholar, but MIT recruiters aggressively wooed him, and as Reif likes to tell it, he came in 1980 and never left.
He thrived on the Cambridge campus, serving as a department chair and then provost. Early on, he championed nanotechnologies, earned 15 patents, and edited or co-edited five books.
As provost, he oversaw the university’s academics and its budget, trimming a $50 million deficit and putting the school on solid footing during the global economic downturn more than a decade ago.
He was the driving force behind “EdX,” a massive open online course program that offers MIT and Harvard classes to people across the world.
“His family wasn’t particularly rich, so he knows what it means to come from people who are working hard and want the best for their children,” said Melissa Nobles, a political science professor and the dean of the school of humanities, arts, and social sciences at MIT. “I think he sees that education was a huge part of his own mobility.”
Even in a science-heavy school like MIT, Reif has supported the arts, overseeing the creation of a new performing arts building in 2017, Nobles said.
With the university under a harsh spotlight, some professors and university leaders were not eager to speak about the Epstein matter at all or wanted to address Reif’s role in only the most superficial terms.
Susan Hockfield, who was president of MIT from 2004 to 2012, did not return calls for comment about Reif and the current controversy. But she provided a statement through an MIT spokesman defending Reif.
“In all the time Rafael and I worked together at MIT, I saw and relied on his strong character, integrity and deep commitment and love for the Institute. I have full confidence that he can lead the MIT community through this difficult period to reach a better place,” Hockfield said.
MIT did not respond to questions about whether some of the $800,000 that the university accepted directly from Epstein over 20 years came during Hockfield’s tenure.
When Reif replaced Hockfield in 2012, fund-raising was a top priority. MIT was interested in renovating old facilities and investing in new research and buildings.
MIT launched an ambitious $5 billion capital campaign in 2016. In 2018, the university received a $350 million gift from investor Stephen Schwarzman for a school focused on the computer and artificial intelligence, and MIT upped its fund-raising goal to $6 billion.
As of June, MIT has raised $5.2 billion.
Universities need money to hire top scientists and professors and to support their groundbreaking research, and finding untainted donors is difficult, said Yossi Sheffi, an engineering professor and the director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics.
But Reif has made hard ethical calls about donors before, Sheffi said.
About a decade ago, Sheffi said, he had negotiated a $20 million contract with the Panamanian government to open a logistics and supply chain research center in the Central American country, but then started to worry about working with some unsavory and corrupt officials. Sheffi was thinking about canceling the project, but the contract was lucrative and would help pay for his work and his researchers, and some officials at MIT cautioned him to think hard about reversing course.
But to Sheffi’s relief, Reif immediately supported his desire to cancel the project, Sheffi said.
“He’s a good guy, and asking for his resignation is ridiculous,” Sheffi said.
Reif has thus far retained the confidence of the university’s governing corporation.
“This is a time that would test anyone’s leadership,” said Nancy C. Andrews, a Duke University professor and a member of the MIT corporation’s executive committee. “I’ve known a number of university presidents, I would put Rafael in the very top tier.”
But convincing some on MIT’s campus that Reif should remain at the helm will be a challenge.
“There’s just so many bad actors, after bad actors, after bad actors, who donate to the institution, who Reif has met with,” said Husayn Karimi, a master’s student in computer science who helped lead a campus rally earlier this month calling for Reif’s resignation. “It’s really disingenuous for him to claim that MIT is a beacon of change and hope in this world.”
At the faculty meeting last week, Reif pleaded for an opportunity to try.
“Since I played a role in this problem, I feel a deep responsibility to help repair a system and a culture that failed the people of MIT,” he said.