President Reif addresses ties between MIT and Epstein at faculty meeting

Faculty response is mixed, ranging from severe criticism to defense of administration

President L. Rafael Reif gave updates regarding Jeffrey Epstein’s ties with MIT at the first faculty meeting of the year Sept. 18. Faculty members’ sentiments towards those involved in the acceptance of Epstein’s donations ranged from extremely critical to sympathetic.

Due to the fact that Reif has been heading the discussion on the relationship between Epstein and the Institute, Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser led the meeting. “Like many students and colleagues,” Danheiser began, “I felt profound shame on learning about Jeffrey Epstein and the Institute.” Danheiser expressed that he found it unacceptable that “the evil man Jeffrey Epstein” donated to the Institute, hoping to use his contributions and MIT’s reputation for his personal gain.

Following Danheiser’s introduction, Reif delivered opening remarks in which he repeated information previously released in his four emails since September and expressed his regret and sense of personal responsibility for the matters.

“Over the last few weeks, our whole community has experienced deep pain, sadness, and disappointment,” Reif said to the audience of faculty, student leaders, and other guests. “Many of you have expressed those feelings to me directly. I know that many of you are angry about the whole situation. I know many of you are angry at me. But I will not presume that I know or understand how all of you are feeling or how you have experienced these events. Learning more about that is a central goal of this meeting. I do know that this is a disorienting time for all of us at the Institute.”

In response to questions regarding his lack of memory or opposition to signing a letter thanking Epstein, Reif said, “I did not recognize the name, and I sign many standard thank you letters every week.” Reif also said that, while many found him “trying to distance [himself] from responsibility,” it was “the opposite of what [he] had intended.”

Reif concluded his remarks by outlining the next steps that the Institute was planning to take. He referenced the administration’s efforts to work with Violence Prevention and Response to “identify appropriate charities that serve victims of sexual abuse, like Jeffrey Epstein’s young victims.” Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 then discussed the formation of a group to review and improve the processes for accepting future donations.

Before the meeting opened up for questions and comments, Mark DiVincenzo, vice president and general counsel, provided updates regarding the “fact-finding process” being undertaken by Goodwin Procter. It was clarified that the independent investigation was ordered by the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation. At its completion, Goodwin Procter’s findings will be delivered to the committee and to Reif. Release of any details to other members of the MIT community is at the discretion of Reif and subject to the approval of the committee.

Faculty opinion regarding the ties between Epstein and the Institute, the fact-finding process, and other related matters was mixed. Comments ranged from scathing indictments of administration to vehement defense of their actions.

Professor of Anthropology Heather Paxson and Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Science, Technology, and Society Lisa Parks delivered a letter written by 30 tenured female members of the faculty and signed by over 60. In their remarks expressing shame at the Institute’s actions and at the faculty who violated policies and Institute values by taking money from and inviting Epstein to campus, the authors noted that the investigation was primarily concerned with the policy failures and the financial aspects. The authors wrote, “We also strongly believe that the significant gender and sexual implications of the MIT-Epstein relationship must not be lost.”

Professor of Biology Angelika Amon directly called out Reif and senior leadership, saying, “In my view, President Reif, the buck stops with you. In my view, the only way forward … is for you to accept responsibility and for you to resign your position.”

In response to Amon’s comments, Reif asked her to “please reserve that judgement” until the fact-finding report is released. 

The idea that the ties highlighted a larger, cultural problem present in the Institute was recurring throughout the meeting. Leigh Royden PhD ’82, professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary science, said that in her 35 years at MIT, she had observed numerous examples of “usually powerful faculty … exhibiting uncollegial behavior” against vulnerable members of the faculty. Royden also said she is a victim of childood sexual abuse. 

Alexander H. Slocum ’82, professor of mechanical engineering, also said he was a victim of childhood sexual assault. He choked up while reading his poem imploring the MIT community to come together and grow while calling for the establishment of an Office of Moral Guidance. 

Professor of Physics and Women & Gender Studies Edmund Bertschinger said, regarding the ethical focus of the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing: “We want our students to take ethics classes, but what about our leaders?”

Professor of Philosophy Kieran Setiya urged the administration to “take a greater view of what it means for MIT to be a moral institution,” mentioning donations by the late David Koch, an industry tycoon who actively fought against climate science research.

In an extensive analysis of the causes of the ties with Epstein, former Faculty Chair Susan S. Silbey criticized what she believed to be the Institute operating like a for-profit organization by balancing profits and expenses, promoting “mechanical thinking,” and “devaluing social knowledge and expertise.” These cultural flaws, Silbey argued, are the reason that “we really can’t be surprised when a registered sex offender is celebrated” for his philanthropic contributions.

Professor of Mathematics Gigliola Staffilani expressed her fear of the present misogyny in MIT’s culture, saying that she now questions the respect given to her and other female faculty by their male colleagues.

Some faculty members delivered more pointed critiques. W. Craig Carter, professor of material science and engineering, called the invitation of Epstein to campus and within “not two hundred yards of a childcare center,” an “act of almost criminal responsibility,” when some MIT students were the same age as Epstein’s victims.

However, not all faculty members were critical of the administration or the faculty involved. Director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics Yossi Sheffi said, “Nothing illegal was done by MIT.” He went on to argue that in the context of academic research institutions, anyone would take money from any source in order to pay the members of a research lab, challenging the faculty in the room to work for free. 

Members of the faculty presented proposals to prevent future incidents like the Epstein scandal. The group called for the creation of an “ad-hoc committee on protecting academic integrity, to draft a statement on MIT values” regarding the receipt of outside funding and donations. The group desired that this committee review existing funding relationships and develop guidelines for future donations that include compliance with state, federal, and local laws, revised restrictions on faculty conflicts of interest, protections for whistleblowers, and public notification for donations of over one hundred thousand dollars. The proposal was moved to discussion, and an official vote will occur during the October faculty meeting.

Members of the Media Lab also spoke regarding the matter. Professor Pattie Maes entreated her fellow faculty to stop referring to the situation as the “Media Lab issue,” noting that two years prior to the Media Lab accepting a donation from Epstein, funds were also taken by the mechanical engineering department. Media Lab Professor Rosalind W. Picard ScD ’91 called for support for victims of abuse in a letter written by a number of men and women faculty members. Picard also asked for “support from MIT in dealing with the press in times of crisis” by means of seeking corrections for news organizations that publish misinformation.

In addition to faculty, students also delivered comments at the meeting. President of the Undergraduate Association Mahi Elango ’20 said, “I feel angry because I expected the best from MIT,” and expressed concern that this investigation will only be limited to this situation but fail to look into broader problems in the Institute. Vice President of the Graduate Student Council Alexander Joerger G implored faculty to provide strong guidance to students’ moral compasses, asking them to consider: “What does it mean to work for the betterment of humankind?”

Other faculty members raised concerns about previous close connections between MIT and the firm Goodwin Procter.

Reif concluded with the following: “There were many assumptions mentioned today. I don’t blame you for the assumptions you made. I want to beg you, honest to goodness, wait a little longer.”

Update 9/19/2019: The article was updated to correct that Gigliola Staffilani, not Giulia Saccà, was the math professor who spoke at the meeting.