MIT president Rafael Reif, in the latest fallout over the school’s connections to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, says women at the prestigious university feel belittled, minority and LGBTQ members feel excluded, and staff are bullied by star faculty.
The revelations that the school took money from and had other ties to Epstein, a convicted sex offender who died in August in a New York jail, have ignited a fury on campus, and Reif said in a letter to the community Thursday that the controversy has unearthed deeply rooted cultural challenges with “searing clarity.”
“When — on top of the hard work they came here to do — many in our community contend with disrespect, exclusion, stereotyping, harassment and a structural lack of representation,” Reif wrote, “it is clear we still have a long way to go to achieve our ideal of ‘One MIT.’ ”
In recent weeks following the Epstein disclosures, Reif has held a series of packed meetings across campus with students, faculty, and staff. He has also spoken privately with campus members and received hundreds of e-mails and comment cards about the problems at MIT that allowed Epstein to give money to the university, dine with its leaders, and visit the Cambridge campus accompanied by young women, without much criticism.
The “feedback has been very difficult to hear — difficult, but necessary,” Reif said.
In meetings and feedback from more than a third of the university’s 265 female faculty members, Reif said, “Many shared troubling accounts of persistent inequities for women at MIT, from belittlement to marginalization.”
Women at MIT said the recent conversations across campus have been promising.
“I suspect [Reif] has learned a lot,” said Nancy Hopkins, a retired MIT biology professor who helped draw attention to gender equity problems at the university in the late 1990s. Reif seems to be listening, she added.
Women on campus have “certainly got his attention,” she said.
Less clear is what can or will be done about these concerns. Some at MIT worry that the push for change will be studied and forgotten in endless committee meetings.
MIT has hired a law firm to review its ties to Epstein and is awaiting the results of that report. The university’s leadership is also studying whether to make changes to its financial donation procedures.
Epstein was found dead of an apparent suicide in August in his jail cell at a federal detention facility, where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking of minors. He had been convicted as a sex offender in 2008 for soliciting a minor for prostitution and had spent a year in jail.
Despite that criminal history, then-MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito acknowledged in August that he had taken money from Epstein for university research and for his own personal investment funds. That led to the resignation of two instructors at the Media Lab and condemnation of Ito by students and some faculty.
Ito eventually resigned in September after a story in The New Yorker revealed the extraordinary lengths he and others went through to hide Epstein’s ties to MIT, including referring to the financier by his initials and keeping the donations anonymous.
But documents leaked by a whistle-blower also revealed that MIT’s fund-raising office and the central administration were aware of Epstein’s involvement and also worked to keep it quiet.
Female staff and students said their objections to Epstein’s involvement in MIT — which included visits to campus, private dinners with faculty and wealthy business leaders, and help recruiting more rich donors to MIT — were ignored.
Reif has made a series of public statements about the Epstein matter. In August, he apologized to Epstein’s victims on behalf of the MIT administration. In September, he apologized to professors about the school’s entanglement with Epstein — and he acknowledged that knowledge of MIT’s involvement with Epstein involved senior members of his administration.
In universitywide meetings in the past two months, some students, faculty, and staff have complained that the Epstein scandal reflected much deeper problems at one of the nation’s leading research universities.
A letter signed by more than 300 people, including many female faculty members, students, and alumni, warned that women were often sidelined in fund-raising efforts and that gender equity remained a problem. For example, this academic year only 265 of 1,066 faculty members are women, and just 21 are women of color, according to Reif’s letter.
Admissions figures show that women are better represented among students. Of 4,602 MIT undergraduates for 2018-19, 46 percent are female, according to the admissions department, and women make up 35 percent of this year’s 6,972 grad students.
In meetings, staff from across the campus, many of them women, also complained about being bullied and humiliated by faculty, in some cases for simply failing to address them formally as professors, or being subjected to unwanted hugs by top academics on campus.
“Speaker after speaker expressed a profound sense that as staff at MIT, they feel invisible, dispensable, isolated and last in line. They feel their work is not valued, their judgment discounted or ignored,” Reif wrote.
“It was sobering, at our forum for administrative and support staff, to hear so many members of our community report that they or their colleagues were afraid to speak — afraid in that setting, and afraid in their daily work,” Reif wrote.
Reif in his letter said MIT is speaking with experts at the university and outside about creating a process to address the cultural problems on campus.
“We all know that discrimination, marginalization and power imbalances exist throughout society and are rampant in academia and in tech,” Reif wrote. “But that is no defense, and in fact at MIT we have never settled for being like others.”