Opinion guest column

Why is taking Epstein’s money wrong?

Discussion on this controversial issue should be encouraged, not shunned

On Oct. 1, I spoke at the student forum organized by MIT to hear comments about the Epstein-MIT scandal. I was one of the few to raise concerns that perhaps students were jumping too quickly to calls of retribution before the issue of Epstein money had been fully discussed. I called for campus-wide dialogue (something I’ve never experienced at MIT in four years). Reif echoed my words by calling for conversation. I have one suggestion for how to make this happen. 

The idea is called deliberative polling. It’s called polling because the opinions of participants are surveyed before and after the event. The goal is to have participants spend one or two days with a representative sample of the MIT population to discuss issues. The shift in public opinion is attributed to participants becoming informed on the issue. It has been implemented many times and very notably reported on in the NYT as applied to the 2020 election. This is the most impactful action we can take as a community. 

In case that never happens, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of students you may or may not have heard yet. These ideas are my own but have been discussed with many students who feel similarly. For one reason or another, they don’t feel comfortable speaking freely in the current climate. 

I don’t know why anonymously taking Epstein’s money was wrong. 

At first, it seemed natural to recoil in disgust at finding any association with a monstrous individual. It even made sense that Ito should resign after going against MIT policy in secretly taking that money. But now we know that he took the money with permission from MIT administration. It would seem to me then that Ito did nothing wrong. But instead some are calling for all involved MIT administration to resign. It is these further calls to resignation that I cannot understand. 

Although the specifics and timeline around Epstein are difficult to understand, we all agree on some facts. Epstein was a convicted sex offender. MIT administration, including Reif, agreed to take donations from Epstein in spite of his criminal record. The money was used to fund research, and the donation was made anonymous. If MIT’s only crime was deciding to take the money of an ex-felon, then I must be missing something. 

MIT has no authority to investigate the potential criminal activity of its donors. Epstein was a failure of the criminal justice system. Tasked with keeping the public safe, the system let loose a clear danger to society. Worse, this appears to have happened not out of incompetence but due to corruption on the part of then-Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta. It’s hard to believe why he decided to take a plea deal with Epstein and not indict him with federal charges. The MIT community should focus its ire on our corrupt government institutions and the associates of Epstein, who are criminals.

The Epstein conversation inevitably leads into a separate conversation about dark money. In my understanding, dark money is the act of taking money from groups or individuals who are disliked by the general public. “Dark money” is a broader issue and should be a separate conversation, so I’ll just share two brief points.

Lumping different donations into one large group of bad actors is confusing and tribal. Does it make sense to consider ex-felons, companies, foreign governments, and certain rich people with certain political ideologies part of the same group? Each situation has important nuances that make them unique and should be discussed separately. There can be similarities, but they are not all simply “dark money.”

My second point relates to the unclear philosophy underpinning the disgust with “dark money.” Is dark money ill-gotten, or is it legitimately earned but given by a bad person? Is it possible for bad people to do good things? Should we allow or encourage “bad” people to redeem themselves, if not fully then at least partially? Would the world not be a better place if we found ways to cooperate with our enemies? Sometimes the tradeoff of working with someone you despise at the expense of boosting their reputation is worth taking. 

In my book club, we recently read King Leopold’s Ghost, a historical account of the much-forgotten genocide in the Congo, orchestrated almost single-handedly by King Leopold II at the turn of the 20th century. One of the protagonists, E. D. Morel, dedicates his life to stopping Leopold. In his efforts to gain support from the U.S. government to pressure the Belgian king, he allied himself with a racist Southern Democrat who wanted black Americans to return to Africa. Morel ultimately got the U.S. to condemn Leopold’s illegal regime. However, do the ends justify the means here? If working with racist Americans helps end genocide in another country, is that good? 

In the case of Morel, the goal and the logic behind achieving that goal were clear and strightforward: end genocide in the Congo by leverging whoever you can to put pressure on Belgium. Even if “dark money” is inherently bad, there is no clear link between resignation of MIT leadership and positive change. This central demand by some is nonsensical. Instead, let’s talk about what change we want and why. And then discuss how to make these changes. Reif’s resignation would be nothing more than a hollow victory — winning the battle but losing the war. 

Many of us are going to disagree on this issue. That’s okay. It’s not okay that disagreeing has become an excuse to avoid discussion and isolate ourselves in comfortable echo chambers. That is dangerous. Academia is the safe space for discussing ideas. It’s where difficult conversations can happen, where we allow for mistakes, where we extend good faith to our strongest critics. If we don’t do it here, then we are failing the nation and the world. However, as our higher education institutions become more politically orthodox, they are losing their stomachs for controversial debate. The bias is clearly towards the liberal left, and conservative voices are shrinking. This oversight in diversity of opinion will only hurt the liberal cause and slow our progress towards a more equitable world. 

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” —John Stewart Mills.