Opinion guest column

Don’t be surprised by the administration’s decision on Seth Lloyd

Top MIT administrators who enabled Epstein’s sex trafficking operation are still covering their tracks

CW: Contains references to sexual violence.

This past December, Professor Seth Lloyd, who raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, was reinstated to his post as an MIT professor with a few minor penalties following a drawn-out investigation. Lloyd, a professor of physics and mechanical engineering, had a close personal and professional relationship with Epstein. He traveled to Epstein’s private island (where it is believed that children were trafficked as recently as 2019), visited him in prison after his felony conviction for child prostitution, attended meetings with him on campus, and received $225,000 in funding from Epstein between 2012 and 2017.

Although Lloyd claims not to have known about the extent of Epstein’s crimes, this is hard to believe considering the number of news articles and public lawsuits which were filed during their association. Academics who were in Epstein’s circles have said that Epstein was very open about the fact that he had “two interests: science and pussy,” and often had young women hovering around and giving him massages. One anonymous professor recalled that at a “scientific conference” held by Epstein, sometimes he’d turn to his left and ask some science-y questions. Then he’d turn to his right and ask the model to show him her portfolio.” Lloyd himself confirmed when speaking to student protesters in 2019 that Epstein often traveled with young women, describing it as “creepy” (all of these academics insisted they could tell the women were over 18, but we can assume some were not).

Lloyd described his receipt of donations as an act of “rehabilitation” following Epstein’s prison term. He elaborated, “It wasn’t money that I needed. I took it because I thought that it was my obligation to do so, because I had said I was going to help with him coming back into society.” The true meaning of this statement is that Lloyd directly aided Jeffrey Epstein by taking his money. Epstein was able to evade prosecution for decades precisely because of the web of powerful figures that he developed using philanthropic donations, in combination with blackmail, intimidation, and access to his trafficked girls. While some in his social and professional networks, like MIT’s AI guru Marvin Minsky, allegedly participated directly in the trafficking ring, others like Lloyd enabled Epstein by growing his network, granting legitimacy to the conferences held at Epstein’s private island, and building his credentials as a science philanthropist. 

When Lloyd claims he was bringing Epstein “back into society,” what he really means is that he was assisting Epstein in strengthening and broadening his network of influence. He cynically cloaks this in the language of restorative justice in order to conceal the fact that he enabled a child sex trafficking operation and benefited from it, through a funded sabbatical and access to Epstein’s web of prominent publishers

In light of these facts, Lloyd’s punishments — “professional conduct training,” temporary unspecified restrictions on compensation, and temporarily not being able to advise first-year students — are clearly not proportional to his wrongdoings. The basic response should be to remove him from his position, along with all others at the Institute who did the same.

MIT might respond to this piece by saying that they can’t revoke Lloyd’s tenure because he didn’t engage in a sufficiently serious policy violation. But in fact, the criteria for terminating tenure are quite vague and could easily apply to this situation: “From time to time it may be necessary to take action with respect to a faculty member who engages in conduct incompatible with the responsibilities of faculty membership or who fails to meet reasonable standards of performance. The circumstances that can lead to such action cannot be anticipated in precise terms.”

The investigation conducted by MIT into Lloyd’s actions conveniently skipped over the question of what role people like him, and the university more broadly, played in enabling Epstein’s crimes. The panelists appointed to manage the investigation and decide on disciplinary action included many of Lloyd’s colleagues and fellow department members and didn’t consult any students or community members in the process. They found no problem with the donations Lloyd received from Epstein, with his visiting Epstein in prison, or more broadly with the fact that he entered into a relationship of patronage with a child sex trafficker, because apparently none of these things “violate any MIT policies.” Instead, they looked for the most minor infraction they could punish him for, concluding that when Lloyd received his very first donation from Epstein in 2012, he violated the Institute’s vague conflict of interest policy by not explicitly “inform[ing] MIT that Epstein was a convicted sex offender.”

It is absurd — and perfectly in line with MIT’s approach to the Epstein scandal — that this sin of omission is chosen as Lloyd’s token rule violation. When the 2020 report on the Epstein scandal by law firm Goodwin Procter was released, it claimed that Lloyd had purposefully concealed Epstein’s identity (pages 19–20 of the report). This recent review panel decided even that claim couldn’t be supported, so instead the issue now is that Lloyd didn’t explicitly communicate Epstein’s sex offender status when he received that first donation in 2012. This information could be found upon a basic Google search, and sure enough, only a few months later in November of that year, MIT’s Office of Resource Development discovered Epstein’s sex offender status and immediately proceeded to approve a second donation from Epstein to Lloyd (page 21 of the Goodwin Procter report). Clearly, the Institute never had an issue with Epstein’s identity.

The real reason that Lloyd will face no serious consequences for enabling a child sex trafficker is because the university’s relationship with Epstein was facilitated and approved by members of the top levels of the administration. If they decided to punish Lloyd for the donations he received, they would also be forced to admit the guilt of top officials like President L. Rafael Reif, MIT Corporation Chairman Robert Millard, and Vice President for Resource Development Julie Lucas.

The Goodwin Procter report released last January, when read closely, details the high-level involvement of top university officials in the relationship with Epstein. In 2013, MIT Vice Presidents Morgan, Newton, and Ruiz formulated an explicit plan to facilitate donations from Epstein and mark them as anonymous. This framework seems to have remained in place until Epstein’s arrest in 2019.  This policy was reviewed and re-affirmed multiple times over the next several years including by Julie Lucas under whom the policy remained in place (pages 33–35 of the Goodwin Procter report).

Although the paper record of President Reif’s involvement was kept purposefully sparse through a strategy of bringing up the Epstein donations as “off-agenda items” in meetings, it’s quite clear that Reif was involved in conversations about the plan to accept Epstein’s money. At an April 2015 Senior Team meeting, which was around the time the policy was being re-evaluated, Reif wrote “‘Epstein — Joi Ito’ on his copy of the agenda” (pages 36–38 of the Goodwin Procter report). He claims to not remember why. On top of this, Chairman Millard was approached multiple times by Joi Ito in 2016 and 2017 for assistance in cultivating Epstein, whom they both knew personally, as a donor (pages 40–43 of the Goodwin Procter report). He apparently did not find this concerning enough to raise a flag with the Resource Development office or other top administrators.

The clear conspiracy on all levels of the Institute to knowingly accept money from a child sex trafficker has been justified and downplayed in a variety of ways. The Goodwin Procter report concluded that “mistakes of judgement” were made, but that the administrators’ actions were acceptable because they didn’t “violate any law, breach any MIT policy, or act in pursuit of personal gain” (page 6). When discussing the involvement of senior administrators like President Reif, the report minimizes their complicity by emphasizing that “no provocative terms like ‘sex offender’ or ‘pedophile’ were ever used” in their presence while describing Epstein (page 36). This language serves to sidestep the obvious fact that the people running an organization are responsible for the things happening immediately around them.

In the MIT Corporation Executive Committee’s final statement on the matter, they write (italicized emphasis added by authors), “the report makes clear there were multiple opportunities to stop the Epstein donations and halt efforts by Joi Ito and Seth Lloyd to cultivate him as a donor. It is regrettable that no one with the knowledge, opportunity and the authority to do so stepped up to end the Epstein funding.” As for what should have been taken into consideration that wasn’t, the Goodwin Procter report gives the following criteria (page 55): “(1) whether accepting money from Epstein was consistent with MIT’s core values; (2) the impact that MIT’s acceptance of Epstein’s money would have on the MIT community should those donations become known; and (3) whether it was appropriate to accept donations with a requirement by MIT that they remain anonymous.”

Basically, the problem was not that MIT enabled sex trafficking, but that people found out about it. And it’s true: The resulting public outrage, bad press, and student protests seriously damaged the university’s standing. Many people inside and outside the university were enraged by this blatant relationship with a child sex trafficker, and the events stirred up anger around other issues such as institutional sexism, harassment by faculty, and fraudulent research. Due to this, the university wound up facing a significant dilemma in its response to the Epstein scandal.

On the one hand, the university needed to respond in a way that made it seem like they cared about these issues, while on the other hand, it was important not to respond too strongly, because the entire top level of the administration was implicated, and because at the end of the day, MIT’s existence depends on the kinds of cozy and flexible relationships with donors that caused this scandal in the first place. They needed to feign outrage and act as if they wanted to reform the Institute, while also creating as little space as possible for assessments of guilt or interrogation of MIT’s other funding sources.

To these ends, Lloyd and former Media Lab Director Joi Ito served as convenient scapegoats for the administration. Although almost all of their actions were taken with the full knowledge and approval of top university officials, it became possible early on to frame the Epstein scandal as the moral failing of a few individuals rather than a side effect of how MIT is designed to operate. Ito’s very public resignation made it possible to pin blame on him, while also removing the need for the university to take action.

The situation with Lloyd was different, because although there was significant backlash against him, he had no intention of stepping down, and the administration was forced to decide on a response. They had to settle for a middle-of-the-road approach, with a temporary suspension and drawn-out investigation that ultimately found no real issues (except a manufactured one).

It’s been a while since this scandal first broke out, and the numerous global crises of the last year have allowed those involved to skirt by mostly unscathed. We should not forget that the MIT administration, with the knowledge of President Reif and Chairman Millard, consciously chose to develop a relationship of patronage with a child sex trafficker, and they are directly complicit in enabling his crimes. There is no question that the people involved, from Lloyd to the very top, should have been immediately removed from their posts when this came to light, and they still should be.

However, we can’t just let ourselves see the Epstein scandal as the wrongdoings of individual immoral actors, or as a failure of the university to uphold its “values.” If we want to truly understand why MIT’s regular functioning results in these horrific events, we will need to start asking deeper questions about the political and economic interests that drive the university, as well as questions about the nature and history of gendered violence and how it is perpetuated by our institutions.

Alonso Espinosa Domínguez ’20 graduated from MIT with a B.S. in Mathematics.

Matt Hodel SB ’17 is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Physics.

Rebecca Lizarde ’24 is a first-year undergraduate.

Gabe Fields ’19 is an engineer at the MIT Media Lab (contracted through nextSource).