The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been plunged further into crisis as a letter from its president revealed the scale of financial donations it received from the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
One of its top scientists and recipients of Epstein donations, Seth Lloyd, also penned a public apology for accepting the funds, saying: “I helped Mr Epstein protect his reputation, and I disempowered his victims. I should have focused on them instead of him.”
Epstein, who was being held on bail on sex trafficking charges, killed himself on 10 August in a New York jail cell, a decade after pleading guilty to soliciting a minor in Florida. Despite that conviction, Epstein had maintained a lavish lifestyle and a host of rich and famous friends in his elite social circle.
Late on Thursday MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, said in a statement that the institute would review its process for accepting donations after taking about $800,000 from foundations controlled by Epstein over a 20-year period.
The funds went to the Media Lab, an elite research center led by Joichi Ito, and to the physicist Lloyd, a member of the MIT faculty.
Reif’s letter bluntly admitted the institution’s mistakes.
“To Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, on behalf of the MIT administration, I offer a profound and humble apology,” Reif wrote. “With hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts.”
“Despite following the processes that have served MIT well for many years, in this instance we made a mistake of judgment,” Reif added.
He added that the investigation into Epstein’s donations would be led by the school’s provost, Martin Schmidt.
In a separate announcement posted on Medium, Lloyd also apologized for maintaining a relationship with Epstein, who had funded projects described in 19 academic papers. According to an analysis by Robert Rutledge, an associate professor at McGill University, all but one was published after Epstein pleaded guilty to the charges in Florida.
Lloyd said in a post to Medium that his friendship with Epstein had begun in 2004 and he had visited the wealthy financier in Palm Beach during his 13-month sentence for solicitation.
Lloyd addressed his letter to Epstein’s alleged victims. “By not listening to your voices, I participated in a system of privilege and entitlement that protected a powerful abuser and that failed you. I apologize to you and I ask for your forgiveness,” Lloyd wrote.
“I believed, at the time, that I was doing a good deed. Mr Epstein expressed remorse for his actions and assured me that he would not re-offend,” he said, adding that after Epstein’s release from prison, he resumed attending discussions and accepted two grants from his foundation.
“These were professional as well as moral failings,” he said.
The latest apologies came after two Media Lab researchers resigned. On of those, MIT’s director of the center for civic media Ethan Zuckerman, said he was resigning because he believed the lab’s dealings with Epstein compromised its values.
The crisis at MIT over its relationship to Epstein comes after the technology writer Evgeny Morozov exposed links between literary agent John Brockman, who represents many MIT scholars, and Epstein’s funding of lavish soirees that were part of Brockman’s Edge Foundation.
Morozov challenged Brockman, who represents Ito, to clarify his relationship with Epstein. Failing that, he called on Brockman’s authors “to decide whether we would like to be part of this odd intellectual club located on the dubious continuum between the seminar room and a sex-trafficking ring”.
Epstein’s interest in science, including eugenics, and in using the scientific community to polish his reputation, has become evident since his death.
The latest series of apologies places Ito, who is already facing calls to resign from students, under renewed pressure. Ito became head of MIT Media Lab in 2011, well after Epstein established links with the institute.
In his own apology, Ito said he took “full responsibility for my error in judgment”, adding, “I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.”
He also pledged to “return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds” and donate the same amount MIT accepted from Epstein “to nonprofits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking”.
This article was amended on 23 August 2019 to correctly credit an analysis to Robert Rutledge.