BOSTON — Disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein donated $750,000 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and visited campus at least nine times as he sought to rehabilitate his image following a 2008 sex crimes conviction, according to findings released Friday by a law firm hired to investigate Epstein’s ties with the school.
The firm found that some MIT executives approved Epstein’s donations but demanded that the gifts be kept out of the public spotlight in an attempt to protect the school’s reputation. Internally, his gifts were recorded as anonymous donations, the report found, even as Epstein continued to flaunt his MIT ties online and in press releases.
Investigators concluded that MIT’s leaders made “significant errors of judgment” but did not violate any laws or school policies in accepting gifts from a convicted sex offender. At the time, the school had no formal policy on accepting gifts from controversial donors, leaving officials to make “ad hoc determinations,” the report found. MIT says it will develop new policies.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who was largely cleared in the report, called the findings “a sharp reminder of human fallibility and its consequences.”
“An enduring MIT value is the willingness to face hard facts, and as community voices have made clear, this situation demands openness and transparency,” Reif wrote in a campus letter on Friday.
In total, investigators found that Epstein made 10 donations totaling $850,000 to MIT between 2002 and 2017. Nearly all of it went to the MIT Media Lab or to Seth Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor and former friend of Epstein.
Former Media Lab director Joi Ito resigned last year amid uproar over his ties to Epstein. He issued a public apology and vowed to raise money for victims of trafficking.
Lloyd, who has also apologized, was placed on paid administrative leave Friday amid findings that he “purposefully failed to inform MIT” about $100,000 he accepted from Epstein in 2012. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Investigators said Epstein contacted Lloyd in 2012 as he tried to refurbish his image after serving 13 months in jail for sex crimes in Florida. Epstein was disappointed that other universities were rejecting his money, the report says, and sent an email to Lloyd as a test. In the message, Epstein told Lloyd, “im going to give you two 50k tranches to see if the line jingles.”
Lloyd chose not to alert officials about Epstein’s criminal past because he knew it would jeopardize the gift, the report found. He later acknowledged to investigators that he had been “professionally remiss.” The report says Lloyd also accepted $60,000 as a personal gift from Epstein in 2005 or 2006, and he received $125,000 from the financier in 2017 to support a sabbatical.
In August, Reif announced that MIT would donate a sum equal to its Epstein donations to a charity that supports victims of sexual violence. The review found that Reif was not involved with Epstein’s donations until the issue attracted public attention in 2019. The president has acknowledged that his signature is on a 2012 letter thanking Epstein for a donation, but said he does not recall signing it.
Epstein, 66, killed himself in his New York City prison cell in August after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges. The wealthy financier had pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s. In lawsuits, women say the abuse spanned decades.
Certain senior leaders at MIT became aware of Epstein’s philanthropy after he gave $100,000 to the Media Lab in 2013. That donation triggered discussions among at least three executives who initially decided to return the money but later approved Epstein as a donor as long as his gifts were kept quiet.
A 2013 memo from Jeffrey Newton, who was then vice president for resource development, requested that officials “please mark all of Epstein’s gifts as anonymous.”
“We do not want his name appearing on any list of supporters or donors in any form,” Newton wrote. “No acknowledgment letters from the president. I think this is the best we can do right now.”
Along with Newton, who has since retired, the donations were approved by R. Gregory Morgan, senior vice president; and Israel Ruiz, executive vice president and treasurer. Morgan has also retired, and Ruiz “has expressed deep regret, which we believe is sincere, for what he believes was a collective and continued error of judgment,” the report found.
In interviews with investigators, MIT officials said they knew of no other cases in which the school initiated a request to make a donor’s gifts anonymous. Such demands are typically made by donors, but the report found that Epstein made no effort to conceal his giving, and even publicized his donations despite objections from MIT administrators.
As the Media Lab sought more donations from Epstein, it regularly invited him to campus to meet with faculty and researchers. From 2013 through 2017 he visited campus at least nine times, the review found, usually at the invitation of Ito. But from early on, staff had concerns. In a 2013 email, Ito wrote that some in his office were “weirded out” by Epstein.
Some of the lab’s staff secretly called him “Voldemort” or “he who must not be named,” investigators found. Some said Epstein’s presence made them feel uncomfortable, especially when he was joined by female assistants who appeared to be in their 20s. The visits were arranged without the knowledge of senior officials, the report found, and Ito stopped inviting Epstein in 2017.
Epstein’s last donation to the school was $25,000 given to the Media Lab in 2017. In February 2019, he tried to donate $25,000 that had been returned by Arizona State University as he faced federal scrutiny. Media Lab staff members rejected it without clearance from Ito, with one staff member noting that the lab had just awarded a prize to the founders of the #MeToo Movement.
“I think taking money from him would be a slap in the face to those winners, undermine the Disobedience Prize and make us look like hypocrites,” the staff member wrote to Ito.
On Friday, Reif promised a slate of changes in response to the findings. He said the school will create policies guiding gifts from controversial donors, and he called for new rules to keep the campus safe from visitors “who could pose a direct threat.”
“As all of you demonstrated, there is a great deal that is right with MIT,” Reif wrote in his campus letter. “We must fix what needs fixing and improve what needs improving. And we must make room for many more voices and perspectives.”