MIT scandal highlights thorny ethics of university donations
BOSTON (AP) — While MIT grapples with new allegations about its financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein, other universities that accepted donations from the disgraced financier say they have no plans to return the money.
The turmoil at MIT has sent shockwaves through the world of education and highlights the challenges universities face as they screen potential donors and decide whether to keep money that’s tainted by its benefactor’s misdeeds.
Epstein was arrested in July on federal sex-trafficking charges, drawing new attention to old allegations that he had sexually abused women and girls. He killed himself in jail in August while awaiting trial.
Harvard University says it already spent $6.5 million that Epstein donated in 2003. The University of Arizona says it isn’t returning $50,000 it received in 2017. The University of British Columbia is not giving back $25,000 it got from an Epstein charity in 2011.
Ohio State University has not said what will come of its funding from Epstein, including $2.5 million donated in 2007. The school announced a review of the gifts in July but declined to provide an update Monday.
Epstein’s ties to academia are coming under renewed scrutiny amid allegations that a prestigious research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a more extensive fundraising relationship with Epstein than it previously acknowledged and tried to conceal the extent of the relationship.
The allegations, first reported Friday by The New Yorker, spurred MIT’s president to bring in an outside law firm to investigate. In a letter to campus Saturday, President Rafael Reif called the accusations “deeply disturbing” and “extremely serious.”
Reif previously announced that MIT had received about $800,000 from Epstein over two decades and would donate the same amount to a charity that benefits victims of sexual abuse.
Other schools have said they didn’t even know donations they received came from Epstein. His $50,000 to the University of Arizona to pay for a science conference came through a charity he operated, Gratitude America, Ltd. School officials said they were unaware of his ties to the charity at the time.
Epstein’s $25,000 to the University of British Columbia came through another of his foundations, Enhanced Education. The school says none of the gift’s documentation, “nor the university’s due diligence,” indicated a link to Epstein, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida under a deal that required him to serve 13 months in jail and register as a sex offender.
“The crimes Mr. Epstein was convicted of, and the later accusations, are abhorrent and the university would not have accepted the donation in 2011 if it had been aware of a link between him and Enhanced Education,” Kurt Heinrich, a university spokesman, said in a statement.
Harvard has refused to disclose exactly how much it received from Epstein but says the largest gift was $6.5 million, given to the school’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics in 2003. A Harvard spokesman said the school did not receive any gifts from Epstein after 2007.
Disputes over tainted money are common at universities and other nonprofits that rely on philanthropy, experts say. Many schools appoint ethics boards to screen donors, but there are no hard rules when it comes to deciding whether to accept a gift.
“Universities have to determine for themselves what is or is not acceptable,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor emeritus at Indiana University who specializes in philanthropy. “There are no clear standards.”
Some nonprofit leaders err on the side of caution, Lenkowsky said, while some believe that even “tainted” figures deserve a chance at redemption.
More universities have been crafting policies to guide them when concerns about donors arise, said Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Different colleges have different appetites for risk, he said, but ultimately the top priority is the school’s reputation.
“You don’t just say yes to everybody who comes in the door with a big check,” Stoever said.
At MIT, it appears there was a breakdown in the system for evaluating donors. According to The New Yorker, the Media Lab continued to accept money from Epstein even after the university labeled him as a “disqualified” donor. MIT says Media Lab director Joi Ito resigned Saturday. Ito, who was also a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, also resigned from that position.
Reif’s message on Saturday said the acceptance of Epstein’s gifts “involved a mistake of judgment.” He added that the school is assessing how to improve policies and prevent similar mistakes in the future.
Among other allegations, The New Yorker reported that Epstein arranged at least $7.5 million from other wealthy donors to the MIT Media Lab, including $2 million that he claimed to solicit from Bill Gates. A Gates representative on Monday said the money given directly to the university in 2014 wasn’t dedicated to the program that Epstein was fundraising for, and Gates’ office wasn’t aware of any discussions between the lab and Epstein about the tech billionaire’s grant.
At Brown University, a fundraising director was placed on administrative leave following a report that accused him of helping cover up Epstein’s connections to the MIT Media Lab. Brown spokesman Brian Clark told The Providence Journal Sunday that Peter Cohen, director of development for computer and data science, is on leave pending a review. Clark said Brown hasn’t received donations from Epstein. Cohen did not respond to a phone call seeking comment Monday.
The fallout over Epstein’s funding is only the latest in a long list of similar disputes. In 2017, the University of Southern California rejected a $5 million donation from Harvey Weinstein after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Weinstein has denied all accusations of non-consensual sex.
Purdue University returned an $8 million donation from the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain last year after he allegedly used a racial slur. In 2016, Ohio University returned $500,000 from former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes after he was accused of sexual harassment, allegations that Ailes denied.
Students and faculty at Harvard, Yale and other universities have been pressing leaders to reject funding from the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, maker of Oxycontin, and has been blamed for contributing to the opioid crisis. The Sacklers have called some of the accusations against the company misleading and said that the family has been wrongly vilified, while trying to distance themselves from the workings of the company.
Associated Press writer Sally Ho contributed from Seattle.