Does This Make Epstein My Boss?

How MIT handled the Epstein scandal, dirty money, and why I’m still here.
March 2021

MIT’s Money Mistakes

Just as I was starting graduate school at MIT, my pride in coming here was tainted by a national scandal that made me think twice about sporting that MIT hoodie. The arrest of Jeffrey Epstein in July of 2019 may seem like a lifetime ago, considering all the issues we grappled with this year. However, it is critical that we not forget how money exerts power in higher education and scientific research. Epstein, a late millionaire and registered sex-offender charged for sex trafficking and prostitution of underage girls, was a financial supporter of MIT’s Media Lab. MIT recently released a fact-finding report stating that Epstein made 10 donations to the Institute totaling $850,000. MIT accepted nine of these donations after he became a convicted sex offender, only rejecting a final donation in February 2019 after the case against Epstein made headlines. At that time, MIT did not have a policy in place to regulate “controversial donations,” but the moral reasoning of leaders in the Media Lab and at MIT should have been enough to prevent accepting Epstein’s money.

There are plenty of resources to explore Epstein and his relationship to MIT. Personally, I am less concerned about Epstein as an individual than about whether or not I am complicit in a system that derives financial support from inhumane actors. If this is where the money that funds my work comes from, did I make the right decision when I enrolled in this institution? Or maybe the question should be, now that I am here, what is my role in preventing the works of me and my peers from being tainted by dirty money?

Donations: always a choice between two evils?

At first, the solution seems straightforward: reject financial support from anyone who has committed such egregious acts. Turns out, this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, MIT isn’t the exception when it comes to drawing from the well of dirty money. Deni Elliot nicely synthesizes numerous recent cases of institutions separating themselves from “disgraced donors.” Fortunately, Elliot also outlines ways in which universities can better filter incoming donations. While donations from Epstein represent a clear-cut ethical misstep, the moral boundary will not be so black-and-white for all donors. MIT created faculty and student committees to collect information about the values of those respective parties and outline how they will use this input to make future decisions about accepting donations. The conclusions drawn from these committees address that it can sometimes be difficult to parse out questions of morality in money, such as: Does an action being legal allow its immorality to be overlooked? This outline is a worthwhile document to explore, as I believe it shows that, though there may not always be an easy distinction between a “good” and “bad” donor, there do exist choices that align with the moral values of the MIT community.

Taking a Skimmer to the Pool of Dirty Money

We are facing an issue larger than any one person or place. I can’t provide an easy fix, but perhaps I can convince you that sticking it out with MIT is a worthwhile investment both personally and morally. With obvious flaws (not the least of which might be “too little, too late”), MIT has addressed head-on the issue of private donor values publicly and within the MIT community. This is one reason why I am still at MIT. The forum held to gather input from faculty/staff was very well attended (check out this Tweet from the director of MIT Center for Civic Media). Furthermore, leadership at MIT is actively working to implement changes that are demanded by their students, community and country. There are countless ways to change how funding operates, including redirecting of federal/state funding (see recent data here), expanding inputs on whose money is accepted, and developing resources widely available to the public to monitor where every dollar comes from. While making these changes will not solve academia’s dirty money problem quickly, MIT leadership’s transparency and willingness to change show me that the institution is capable of such improvement. I believe MIT has displayed these important characteristics and will continue on the path to moral donations.

I appreciate that my school is not shying away from fixing the status quo where immoral donors like Epstein can influence academic research. To be clear, since I did not work for or with Epstein directly, it is tempting to say Jeffrey Epstein is not my boss in the same way I’d say Trump was “not my president.” However, such verbal distancing implies that it is not my problem to fix, when it is in fact critical to demand change. Much as I am shocked and horrified by the values that the late millionaire represents and the knowledge that dirty money has influence in many facets of the world, I am comforted that MIT has begun to listen to the demands to clean up our financial pool.

Make your values clear to MIT through this feedback form and be a part of the change.