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University controversies, particularly when connected to donations and funding, are frequently spoken of in abstract terms. We frame them as a matter of right and wrong; we describe some investments as "morally abhorrent", and deem Arthur M. Sackler's donations "dirty money." The entire approach is deontological, more concerned with rules of "good'"and "evil" than with the actual impact of the interactions themselves.
Those arguments remain fundamental. They represent the ideological backbone of several of the most promising campaigns on campus, including fossil fuel and private prison divestment, where the immediate material impact of policy changes is minimal or hotly contested. But focusing on whether controversial financial ties are inherently "wrong" can sometimes paint an incomplete picture, ignoring the real, practical consequences that they carry.
Jeffrey E. Epstein's well-documented links to Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics offer a revealing example. The New York financier served as a prominent Harvard donor for years, until his 2008 conviction on child prostitution charges led to a University-wide ban on accepting direct gifts from him. Yet, as acknowledged by the Office of the General Counsel’s report on the matter, the ties between Professor Martin A. Nowak — director of the PED — and Jeffrey Epstein continued for years; visits, a private office, and access to other faculty were among the privileges accessible to the billionaire sex offender.
These links might inspire moral revulsion. One feels the impulse to detail the numerous ways in which they reveal violations of the values Harvard is supposed to represent; to highlight how Professor Nowak's conduct denotes the kind of corrupting loyalty that unregulated donations inspire; to state that those actions were, in and of themselves, wrong. But doing so would undersell the severity of Nowak's moral infractions. Their impact was never confined to abstract concerns. It was tangible, significant, and burdened by up-and-coming Harvard affiliates.
Two former researchers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear professional retribution, agreed to share with me their experience at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. Several other program affiliates declined to speak with me.
Their image and professional output has become tied to the lab and thus to Professor Nowak and Jeffrey Epstein. One of them detailed how they found out, via a third party, that their work and research had been used in a news article to tout Epstein's philanthropic credentials. The 2013 article, which the researcher says they didn't know about or consent to, was in fact part of a broader push by Epstein to launder his public image in the aftermath of his conviction. The public relations strategy led to at least three pieces lauding Epstein, some of them featuring a falsified byline (that is, an author was paid to falsely claim he had written an article), a second one was signed by Epstein's own publicist, Christina Galbraith. The disturbing anecdote wasn't, however, the only time Epstein used PED for his own means. As the University report noted, at the time the article was published, Professor Nowak also approved giving Epstein "a full page” on the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics’ Harvard website, linking him to the project. The researchers who worked there became unwitting accomplices in the task of making a convicted sex offender more palatable to the public.
Those ties, while beneficial to Epstein, could haunt them professionally. As the full extent of the financier's alleged offenses became public, the scrutiny on the lab intensified. The New York broker became toxic almost overnight. By July 2019 The National Review, which had partaken in the public relations effort years back, was calling Epstein “a hideous monster”, discussing how he “continued to socialize with fancy people” even after his arrest. Heads had to roll. Peggy Siegal, a New York publicist who had traded favors with the financier; Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who’d secured him a sweet plea deal; Prince Andrew, for a variety of disturbing reasons.
The extent to which this will impact the academics linked to Epstein remains to be seen. Profesor Nowak, who didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article, has been placed on academic leave. Whether his ties to Epstein — which, according to those two researchers, continued well past the 2018 Miami Herald exposé and included a visit in prison during his 2008 conviction — lead to a more significant response will ultimately be up to the University itself (I wouldn’t hold my breath). University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article.
But that the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics has been tainted by the scandal is undeniable. It has been associated with a moral and legal blunder of gigantic proportions, and (rightly) deprived of its main professor. It will prove hard for either of them, the man or the project, to regain the rosy coverage they enjoyed in the past. One can easily imagine the impact of that bad publicity on the output of the program, and on the individuals linked to it. The two researchers I spoke to highlighted the latter, sharing that their former boss's association with Epstein had a negative impact on their professional lives.
Unwelcome publicity can also prove dangerous — or, at the very least, attract intimidating responses. One researcher shared the impact of being connected to such a highly visible controversy in an era when conspiracy theories (particularly those thematically linked to Epstein’s crimes) seem increasingly dominant on social media. The researcher received an email from a conspiracy theorist (one who felt the need to clarify that he was not 'a crackpot') vowing not to rest until discovering the extent of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics’ links to Epstein. The statement, coming in the aftermath of the 2016 Pizzagate shootings (where one of such false accusations had led to very real bullets being shot) was unnerving, to say the least.
Nowak’s downfall ought to serve as a warning. Detractors of the increased scrutiny on controversial fundraising have a tendency to depict themselves as pragmatic consequentialists, presenting unethical donations as, at worst, a victimless crime crucial to securing funding. According to the University's report, Professors Benedict Gross and Jeremy Bloxham held a comparable position, pushing to revisit the University's 2008 decision and accept direct donations from Epstein on the basis that the "good" his economic support could do for research outweighed any "reputational risk".
Those arguments negate any non-pragmatic moral concerns, and they should be criticized for doing so. But they also obscure the stakes at hand. The human stakes, the scientific stakes; the impact on research, and those who conduct it.
Accepting an academic opportunity shouldn’t mean navigating complex moral dynamics with very limited knowledge; it shouldn’t force researchers to either corrupt their values or confront the leading figures in their fields. And it certainly shouldn’t riddle any unbeknownst accomplices with guilt and stigma — especially if they, unlike their professor, are trying to do better.
Guillermo S. Hava '23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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