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What Harvard Sold Jeffrey Epstein

By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

In February 2006, financier Jeffrey E. Epstein applied to renew his Visiting Fellow status at Harvard. Epstein — a prominent Harvard donor with no educational qualifications for the psychology fellowship he sought renewal for — argued that he wanted to continue his studies on power, reputation, and deception. The application was approved — then, months before classes started, he was asked to withdraw, though not without a full refund. The would-be fellow had been charged for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl. His complete estrangement from Harvard appeared imminent and unavoidable.

But it wasn’t.

Over a decade later — after yet another set of sex offense charges and Epstein’s death in jail — a review of the University’s ties to the disgraced financier reveals the extent to which our institution was actively complicit in Epstein’s pattern of abuse. It betrays the influence of power, reputation, and wealth, even within academic institutions that profess to be committed to truth and the nurturing of young people.

By 2011, Epstein registered as a sex offender in New York, deemed to pose “a high risk of repeat offense and a threat to public safety.” His widely criticized plea deal allowed him to serve just 13 months in prison under lax conditions, but the nature of his depravity was widely known since 2006.

Yet between 2010 and 2018, Epstein enjoyed a privileged position at Harvard. He held the keys to a private office on campus (complete with a Harvard University phone line), where he had meetings set up with Harvard academics upon his request. In 2014, following a request made by Epstein's publicist to boost his image, Epstein was granted his own page on Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics website; a link was also set up to Epstein’s foundation website, which featured fraudulent claims about his philanthropy. He visited our institution over 40 times and as recently as 2018, frequently accompanied by female assistants who “appeared to be” in their 20s, and sat in on at least one undergraduate class — all while Epstein’s serial sexual abuse of minors, most of whom were 13 to 16 years old, was public knowledge.

The University has placed Mathematics and Biology professor Martin A. Nowak, head of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, on administrative leave. Rightly so. Nowak facilitated much of Epstein’s association with the University. But he was hardly alone.

A particularly revealing footnote in the University’s report concedes that several faculty members traveled in Epstein’s planes and visited him while he was serving time in jail. More concerningly, the report specifically references faculty visits to Epstein’s private enclave in the Virgin Islands, which has been credibly accused of harboring the trafficking and abuse of girls as young as 11 until 2018.

While Harvard professors can interact with whomever they please, pursuing such trips suggests, at the very least, an extremely concerning lapse in basic moral judgment, and we should judge them accordingly. Relegating that information to a footnote reveals the extent to which Harvard has not only failed to mount sufficient moral criticism but perhaps failed to acknowledge the significance of these relationships.

So why was a convicted sex offender allowed to parade around campus? Why did so many of our faculty indulge him? The answer is depressingly predictable: money. Epstein leveraged his financial contributions to gain access and influence among Harvard faculty members. The philanthropic sex offender donated over $9 million to University programs, including over $700,000 after his 2006 arrest. That amount bought him access to prominent professors, Harvard relationships that would survive his convictions, and an unearned fellowship.

The Epstein report reveals that Harvard served as a powerful platform for a sex offender to pay for a reputation retouch. And the willingness to do so wasn’t limited to Professor Nowak; a culture of complicity pervaded — from Harvard staff who continued to invite Epstein to University events, to Harvard faculty such as Math Department Chair Benedict H. “Dick” Gross ‘71, who considered it “ideal” to continue to seek Epstein’s money — all years after Epstein’s pedophilia was known. Punishing Nowak is certainly necessary, but pretending that he was the only source of the problem is nothing but a deflection of responsibility.

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.

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