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Please Don’t Make the Same Mistakes as MIT’s Epstein Review

To the Office of the General Counsel: Hold administrators accountable, be transparent in fundraising, and act upon student and staff concerns

By Rebecca M. Mer, Inayat A. Sabhikhi, and Mike Yepes
Rebecca M. Mer, Inayat A. Sabhikhi, and Mike Yepes are graduate students and Dubin Graduate Fellows for Emerging Leaders at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Harvard University is currently reviewing its philanthropic relationship with now-deceased convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein. In January, MIT released a similar fact-finding report on its relationship with Epstein. We hope that Harvard does not overlook three crucial areas in which the MIT review fell short — failure to hold administrators accountable, opacity in fundraising policies, and stalling of student and staff concerns. For this review to be useful, it should also list and investigate all current donors with sexual assault accusations and convictions.

The MIT report found that a robust relationship between Epstein and two MIT faculty members led to $850,000 in contributions to the university. While some administrators were aware of Epstein’s criminal past, they arranged verbal agreements to continue receiving funds in small, anonymous donations. Staff and students who raised their objections to Epstein’s funds and presence on campus were repeatedly dismissed. As there was no university policy on accepting donations from controversial donors, technically there was no policy violation.

The first omission in the MIT report is that it does not hold administrators accountable. While one of the faculty members resigned and the other was placed on leave, the administrators were deemed to be “acting in good faith.” Yet the MIT report provides painstaking details of objections raised by staff at the MIT Media Lab, which received the bulk of Epstein’s funds. Media Lab staff members’ discomfort with MIT’s relationship with Epstein was clearly conveyed in meetings and via emails. In the entire cast of characters, the locus of moral leadership appears to be only with Media Lab staff.

The Media Lab faculty member who was raising funds from Epstein continued as usual, after receiving approval from his superiors, who agreed on three conditions for the Epstein donations: that they be anonymously recorded in the MIT database, accepted in small amounts (less than $5 million annually), and not publicized by Epstein. In fact, Epstein publicly boasted of coordinating large donations by others as well. Even if continuing to accept funds from Epstein was deemed “acting in good faith,” that MIT administrators allowed a violation of its own terms and conditions is negligence. Harvard’s investigation would do good to hold administrators responsible for any oversight failures.

The second omission regards missing details on university due-diligence processes to vet potential donors. The report states that no administrator or even faculty member was found guilty of violating policy, because no policy existed. Although there was a one-page MIT Gift Acceptance policy and a Gift Policy Committee, the former was silent on donations from controversial figures, and the latter was defunct. Harvard should adopt transparency in its existing fundraising needs and policies, including any quotas faculty members might need to achieve. If no policy exists, Harvard should disclose clearly its norms and modus operandi about who is expected to fundraise, how much, and under which vetting principles. Such a policy should also clearly state the consequences of being unable to fundraise. An intentional lack of principled vetting can only be read as a purposeful lowering of the bar to increase acceptable donations.

Finally, the MIT report fails to acknowledge what really made it take notice. The transition of Epstein from a prized donor to persona non grata was not because of some internal check and balance that worked. It took an external New Yorker article in September 2019 for the university to finally act, even as staff and students associated with the Media Lab regularly raised concerns. Far from inspiring an internal review, before the bad press administrators corresponded with Epstein to check his preferences, such as coordinating his attendance at a memorial ceremony out of the public eye.

Peppered throughout the MIT report are references to Epstein’s alleged donations to Harvard. At various stages when questions were raised internally, MIT administrators used Epstein’s donations to Harvard to justify his continued contributions to MIT. In June 2013, when the head of the Media Lab asked an ex-member of his advisory council (and the person who introduced him to Epstein) for advice in handling staff objections, she replied, “He’s given a tremendous amount of money to Harvard ... Good to show that list.” Such thinking only changed after external press reports began appearing in the summer of 2019.

Harvard should take this opportunity to display the leadership upon which its prestige is founded. Given this clear evidence of its status being used to launder donor reputations, Harvard must do more than conduct a redundant review of Epstein’s donations. It should also quickly and conscientiously arrive at a revised official gift policy. Harvard’s review, led by its Office of the General Counsel, should validate and act upon student and staff concerns regarding current donors accused of sexual assault and other abhorrent behavior.

True moral leadership would require a review of all problematic donors hiding in plain sight, not just the ones who are already hot potatoes. Such donors include those tied closely to Epstein at the Kennedy School to which several students and staff have been raising objections. A report that delivers anything less is just saving face.

Rebecca M. Mer, Inayat A. Sabhikhi, and Mike Yepes are graduate students and Dubin Graduate Fellows for Emerging Leaders at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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