In a statement to Harvard affiliates last week, University President Lawrence S. Bacow addressed the University’s ties to deceased convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein. Stating he “profoundly regret[s] Harvard’s past association” with the disgraced donor, Bacow pledged to donate the sum of Epstein’s donations not yet spent by the University to charities that support victims of sex trafficking and sexual violence.
We applaud Bacow for this response. Following MIT’s lead in donating the remaining sum of Epstein’s donations was the moral thing to do, as we’ve opined previously, despite how small this sum may be in comparison to the total Harvard received. In articulating his response to Harvard’s ties to Epstein, Bacow’s leadership has notably exceeded the very low bar set by MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif.
Reif’s dissembling statements — claiming he did “not recall” signing a thank you letter addressed to Epstein for gifts awarded to MIT well after Epstein’s 2008 conviction — and the intense backlash they have spurred highlight how vital clear, honest communication can be in navigating situations such as this one. We therefore appreciate Bacow’s efforts to reckon with the heinous nature of Epstein’s crimes and the troubling extent of his relationship with Harvard.
While we appreciate Bacow’s actions now, it bears mentioning that there is no reason such a statement couldn’t have been released in 2008, when Epstein pleaded guilty to procuring prostitution from underage girls. This was just as despicable and just as widely known then as it is now. While we recognize Bacow is not personally responsible for a decision made at a time he was not the president of Harvard, the fact that the University did not address its association with Epstein until 11 years after this conviction — allowing Epstein to continue to tout his ties to Harvard throughout this time — is hugely disappointing. We hope individuals in key positions of power, including Bacow, take this opportunity to reflect on the processes that led to the University’s more than decade long, and that, in the future, the University move more quickly to clarify its moral stance on similar issues.
Going forward, we are curious to see how this precedent of donating money from disgraced donors will inform similar future circumstances. Epstein is not the first character to raise concerns over the ethics of University donations. Mothers of opioid victims, local demonstrators, and various Massachusetts-based opioid grief groups have called for the refusal of donations from the Sackler family for the role some say the family played in spurring the nationwide opioid crisis. Bacow has said that it would be “inappropriate” for Harvard to return any past donations from the family. He has also made a point of noting that donating the remainder of Epstein’s gifts was an “unusual step for the University.” Still, it has been done. This begs the question: What is the coherent logical and moral distinction between these two cases?
Bacow has stated he is initiating a review of the process by which potential University donors are vetted, to ideally prevent having to address questions like this in the future. We’re hopeful that this review will lead to meaningful change. At least in this case, the University has fittingly, and finally, responded. We hope administrators draw a lesson from this incident and act more decisively in the future.
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.