Distasteful Donations

Jeffrey E. Epstein, Arthur M. Sackler, Glenn R. Dubin, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the list of controversial donors to Harvard goes on and on. Students have long protested against the University accepting donations from ethically-dubious individuals. Occasionally, the University has conceded. United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan’s $2.5 million dollar gift to the Divinity School in 2004 was returned amid immense pressure over the anti-Semitic agenda espoused by the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Center. More often than not, however, the University has not bowed to pressure. Despite protests, the University has not returned Epstein’s, Sackler’s, or Saudi gifts.

So how does Harvard decide which donations stay and which few are returned or turned away? These important ethical questions are handled by the Gift Policy Committee — a group chaired by University Provost Alan M. Garber ‘76 and made up of faculty members and administrators who review gifts. Earlier this year, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to provide The Crimson with a copy of the gift review policy or disclose members of the committee. It is unclear how the review process is structured and which gifts are under review. Only one thing is certain: These decisions are made with no transparency.

Though no official gift policy is publicly available, University President Derek C. Bok wrote an open letter in 1979 stating his views on the ethics of accepting controversial gifts. The open letter was cited in 2006 when Harvard decided not to return Epstein’s gift after he was indicted for solicitation of prostitution with a minor. The letter claims that only in “extreme cases,” contributions should be refused from donors who have earned their money immorally. Bok continues: “... on the whole, I would be inclined to accept such donations on the ground that the tangible benefits of using the money...should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions.”

The Gift Policy Committee must be more vigilant and assertive. Dubious donations present real challenges, not just “abstract considerations.”

Firstly, keeping problematic donations validates the Epsteins of the world, showing them that despite their gross moral misdeeds, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world will maintain ties with them. The Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK) previously sponsored a summer leadership development course held at Harvard Extension School where 100 spots were allocated to students sponsored by MiSK. Though the partnership ended in July, other ties to Saudi Arabia may encourage the country to continue perpetuating a genocide in Yemen and assassinating journalists knowing that he can whitewash his evil acts with donations to prestigious institutions.


Secondly, large donations are often transactional; The donors receive as they give. A glowing 2003 Crimson profile details Epstein “networking with the University’s greatest and most well-known minds.” Once multiple underaged women accused him of molestation, his donations should have been returned to demonstrate that Harvard wouldn’t tolerate being “the perfect staging ground for his intellectual pursuits.” Accepting corrupt donations thus benefits and empowers immoral patrons. If students must maintain a certain standard of integrity to be given the opportunity to access the resources provided by the University, donors that benefit from the same resources should meet those same standards.

Furthermore, even if returning donations is purely symbolic, the philosophical value surely outweighs the tangible benefit derived from the donation. After all, isn’t a pristine liberal arts education tainted when financed by a serial child molester or through the oppression of millions of people?

The gift processing committee must be reformed in a few concrete ways to be updated to our “woke” times. Students should have a voice in deciding who funds our education. Students in each undergraduate and graduate school should be elected by the student body as representatives to the gift processing committee to weigh in on donations to their school. Regarding the lack of transparency, publicly-available guidelines for controversial gifts must be set as a metric for the gift review committee to judge. The committee should create a report after each gift review that explains why or why not the gift fits the guidelines and should be accepted. These reviews need not be a thorough investigation into the private lives of donors as a simple investigation would bring to light any known egregious offenses.

One could charge that my opinion expresses financial naivete and a lack of gratitude to the donors that make my education possible. However, a more proactive review process would benefit the vast majority of upstanding donors and incentivize more gifts. A stringent review process would make the donor status a more prestigious, sought-after title. Not only would being a major Harvard donor be a symbol of wealth and a generous heart, but also a token of ethical virtue.

Many days, one does not have to go further than the front page of the newspaper to read about another moral misdeed of a major Harvard donor. That should make us think twice about who we’re getting into bed with.

Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.