Since Jeffrey E. Epstein’s death by apparent suicide while imprisoned on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy, many articles about the disgraced financier include pictures of Epstein donning Harvard apparel. Epstein was not an alumnus, faculty member, or even a Harvard affiliate, yet he boasted long-standing ties to Harvard faculty and a history of donating millions of dollars. After Epstein’s first conviction in 2006, Harvard said it would not return his gift. It has made no change to this statement in the interim.
Once again, Harvard should be grappling with the ethics of accepting a donation from a morally-questionable source. As it does so, Harvard must critically evaluate the full extent of its relationship with Epstein, considering not only the millions of dollars that he directly gave to the University and its affiliates, but also the relationships he forged with University faculty. In conducting this evaluation, Harvard must further recognize that accepting a donation at a given point in time not only legitimates the donor’s reputation, but also implicitly condones what they stand for in perpetuity, unless the University takes clear, decisive action to demonstrate the contrary.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently taken such action with their donations from Epstein. MIT issued an apology for accepting the money in the first place and promised to donate the same amount of money to charities that benefit victims of sexual abuse. One of the individuals most closely affiliated with Epstein at MIT, Joichi Ito, even resigned in the aftermath of revelations about the extent of his dealings with Epstein since his first conviction.
While there are crucial differences between the MIT and Harvard cases — most notably that Harvard received Epstein donations before his 2006 conviction and MIT continued accepting them well after — MIT has set a useful precedent for dealing with Epstein’s donations. Harvard should consider following MIT’s lead and donating at least some portion of the monies received from Epstein to charities supporting victims of sexual assault, sexual violence, and sex trafficking.
Regardless of whether Harvard heeds this advice, the University absolutely bears the responsibility to make a concrete statement denouncing its ties to Epstein. People increasingly associate Epstein with Harvard — not least because of pictures in the media of him in Harvard apparel — and Harvard has done little to nothing to distance itself from the convicted sex offender who also allegedly ran an organized child prostitution ring. Not only did this continued silence further Epstein’s reputation while he was alive, it is also unfair to current Harvard students who must live with the knowledge that Epstein touted his affiliation with their school while University administrators stayed — then as now — silent.
The Epstein case raises serious questions about how a well-connected member of the social elite can use donations to cloak himself in prestige while hiding unspeakable depravity. Harvard must take meaningful action to demonstrate, to students, faculty, and the nation as a whole, that it recognizes the role the University played in that legitimation. That action must signal a seriousness of intent to avoid repeating this mistake.
Whether it be donating to charities or some other method of atonement, no comment is simply no longer an acceptable answer.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.