As details about Jeffrey Epstein’s depravity seeped out, Lesli Suggs felt a wave of revulsion, the same sick feeling she experiences whenever she learns about what has been done to a child who has been sexually exploited, trafficked, and abused.
Epstein was the worst of the worst, someone who used his wealth to traffic, imprison, and abuse girls while simultaneously and cynically courting favor with the great and the allegedly good by writing them checks.
Suggs is president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, the oldest child welfare organization in the United States, so she and her team deal with the real, human impact of pernicious abuse on a daily basis.
When she learned Harvard University had accepted $9 million in donations from Epstein, and that MIT had accepted nearly a million, Suggs saw an opportunity, a chance to turn the scandal of Epstein’s relationship with two of the world’s leading universities into a way to help kids.
Last September, Suggs wrote separate letters to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow and his MIT counterpart, Rafael Reif, asking them to take part in a collaboration.
There was no immediate response from either, and on Oct. 9, the Globe published an op-ed by Suggs, with a headline that pulled no punches: “MIT, Harvard owe a debt to victims of child sex trafficking.”
Citing Epstein’s crimes and institutional willingness to take his cash, Suggs wrote, “Open your hearts — and your wallets — to the victims of his atrocities and the countless others like him. Let’s use that money to bring the best minds to the table to develop innovative and creative ways to care for the victims of child sexual abuse and raise awareness to stop the problem.”
A week after her piece appeared, Suggs received a letter from Bacow.
“It was on his own stationery, very nice,” she said. “It was simply an acknowledgment, that they had received my letter, that the president had shared it with his team, and that Harvard would be back in touch.”
But, three months later, Suggs hasn’t heard back.
At least Larry Bacow had the courtesy to write back. Suggs heard nothing from Reif or MIT, which took $750,000 in donations from Epstein after he was convicted as a sex offender in 2008 and, even more outrageously, hosted the serial predator on campus nine times between 2013 and 2017. Harvard took Epstein’s money, but only before his conviction.
“Massachusetts should be a leader in stopping child sex trafficking,” Suggs wrote to Reif. “I have some ideas and would welcome a conversation if you are interested.”
Kimberly Allen, a MIT spokeswoman, accepted that Suggs’ letter “was not directly acknowledged as it should have been.” She said The Home for Little Wanderers is on a list of possible recipients of MIT’s Epstein funds. She also said that, after the Globe’s inquiry, Reif wrote to Suggs to apologize for not responding and to ask if her offer to collaborate on ways to combat child sex abuse still stands.
Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesman, said Harvard’s own review of Epstein’s gifts is ongoing, and that Bacow did share Suggs’ ideas with his colleagues.
For Suggs, this is not just about money. It’s about harnessing two academic and cultural powerhouses to raise awareness about a problem, the extent of which is wider and more pervasive than most realize.
“I really believe Boston has the ability to figure this out,” Suggs said. “We have the resources here. We have some of the brightest thinkers. To have Harvard and MIT be part of that, leveraging those dollars, here’s an opportunity.”
Harvard and MIT provide some of the finest students anywhere with some of the greatest opportunities in the world. They now have an opportunity to use the money they got from one of the worst, most prolific and horrific abusers of children to help kids who deserve the right to be free of fear.
Given that these institutions’ business is brains, this is a no-brainer.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.