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‘I Profoundly Regret Harvard's Past Association With Him’: Bacow Announces Univ. Will Donate Unspent Epstein Gifts

Massachusetts Hall houses University President Lawrence S. Bacow's office.
Massachusetts Hall houses University President Lawrence S. Bacow's office. By Kai R. McNamee
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Sept. 12, 2019 at 11:47 p.m.

Harvard is conducting a review of all donations made to the University by billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in an email to Harvard affiliates Thursday evening.

"Epstein’s connections as a donor to this University, and other institutions, raise important concerns. With that in mind, two weeks ago I asked for a review of his donations to Harvard. Our decentralization makes such a review more complicated than it would be at some other institutions," Bacow wrote. "I want to emphasize that this review is ongoing."

In his email, Bacow wrote that Epstein made multiple gifts to the University between 1998 and 2007, the largest being a $6.5 million gift to support Harvard’s Program of Evolutionary Dynamics. Bacow wrote the University also received roughly $2.4 million in other gifts from Epstein, based on the University’s current information.

Epstein, who died by apparent suicide last month while in a Manhattan prison, faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse of underage girls. A December 2018 Miami Herald report identified around 80 women who say Epstein molested or sexually abused them before 2006.

Bacow wrote that most of the money Epstein gifted to Harvard over the years has already been spent. Bacow identified a $186,000 unspent balance designated to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, however, that he said would be directed to organizations that support victims of human trafficking and sexual assault.

“This is an unusual step for the University, but we have decided it is the proper course of action under the circumstances of Epstein’s egregiously repugnant crimes,” Bacow wrote.

Bacow said the University decided to donate this money after consulting with FAS Dean Claudine Gay.

Bacow also noted in his email that all of Epstein’s donations were received prior to his 2008 conviction for soliciting prostitution.

The December Miami Herald report found that Epstein operated a sex ring out of his Palm Beach, Fla. house for years. As the result of an extraordinary plea deal – arranged by former U.S. Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta ’90 who resigned in July after federal prosecutors brought forth a new case in New York – Epstein spent only 13 months in a county jail.

“Each of these gifts from Epstein and his affiliated foundations to Harvard University predates his guilty plea in June 2008,” Bacow wrote. “To date, we have uncovered no gifts received from Epstein or his foundation following his guilty plea.”

In addition to Epstein’s financial ties to the University, Psychology professor emeritus Stephen M. Kosslyn designated Epstein as a visiting fellow in the Department of Psychology in 2005, according to Bacow’s letter. The Crimson has previously reported multiple, longstanding ties between Epstein and prominent Harvard affiliates including former University President Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, and Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky.

“We are seeking to learn more about the nature of that appointment from Dr. Kosslyn, who no longer works at the University,” Bacow wrote.

While Harvard accepted many contributions from Epstein over the past few decades, Bacow wrote that the University rejected a gift from Epstein following his 2008 conviction. Bacow did not indicate the nature of the proposed gift.

In an interview with The Crimson in December 2018, Harvard Kennedy School professor David R. Gergen described how he was approached by Epstein to inquire about making a donation in roughly 2004 or 2005. Gergen said the donation was ultimately never made after “serious questions” came to light about Epstein’s past.

When initial allegations against Epstein arose in 2006, the University refused to return the $6.5 million gift to endow the University’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, citing “important research” the donation funded.

As recently as an interview with The Crimson in May 2019, Bacow said he was not aware of any details of Epstein’s donations or his connection to Harvard.

“I don't know the specifics of the Jeffrey Epstein donation or his relationship to the University, actually,” Bacow said at the time. “I'm not going to speculate.”

Bacow wrote in his Thursday email that the University will also review any gifts that may have been given at Epstein’s behest.

The Crimson reported Thursday that contrary to previous media reports, Epstein did not contribute to the donation that funded Harvard Hillel’s building. In his first public comment about Epstein to the press, Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg wrote that Epstein “facilitated” the donation, which had come from billionaire Leslie H. Wexner. Epstein was serving as Wexner’s financial adviser at the time.

In his letter, Bacow pledged to work with “peer institutions” and people within the University to more closely review and vet donors to “prevent these situations in the future.”

“Epstein’s behavior, not just at Harvard but elsewhere, raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors,” Bacow wrote.

“We can all learn from each other,” he added.

The University currently maintains a Gift Policy Committee that is tasked with reviewing certain donations. Harvard has previously declined to comment on what gifts the committee reviews and who serves on the committee.

Just up the river from Harvard, MIT has also been grappling with their ties to Epstein. The school’s President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a letter to MIT affiliates Thursday that he signed a letter thanking Epstein for a donation to the school in 2012. Reif’s message came days after Joichi Ito — former director of MIT’s Media Lab — resigned from the post after the New Yorker reported the lab concealed its relationship with Epstein.

Bacow closed his missive with an apology.

“Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes were repulsive and reprehensible,” he wrote. “I profoundly regret Harvard’s past association with him. Conduct such as his has no place in our society.”

“Harvard is not perfect, but you have my commitment as president that we will always strive to be better,” he added.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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