Epstein donations to MIT caused 'serious damage,' report finds

An independent report clears MIT's president, but a professor who accepted a $60,000 gift has been put on leave.

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The MIT Media Lab building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jon Skillings/CNET

A four-month independent review into MIT's dealings with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein has cleared university President L. Rafael Reif. But a tenured professor and quantum mechanics expert, Seth Lloyd, has been put on paid administrative leave after he accepted a $60,000 gift from Epstein and purposely didn't tell the university the late financier was the source of two donations.

The review, conducted by law firm Goodwin Procter at the behest of the university, also found that MIT's acceptance of 10 donations from Epstein totaling $850,000, which three vice presidents knew about, "was the result of collective and significant errors in judgment that resulted in serious damage to the MIT community." On Friday, MIT announced the investigation results and a 61-page report outlining the review.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's ties to Epstein, a multimillionaire, already have had consequences. Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, resigned in September. And Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, resigned from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab after the publication of an email thread in which he'd said one alleged Epstein victim likely "presented herself ... as entirely willing."

Epstein died in August of an apparent suicide in jail while facing federal sex-trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors in New York alleged Epstein sexually abused and exploited dozens of underage girls. Epstein had been convicted as a sex offender, in 2008, and the new charges against him arrived as the widespread #MeToo movement brought down other powerful men.

In a statement on the Thursday following the report's release, Lloyd reiterated an earlier apology but disputed the report's finding that he "purposely failed" to inform MIT that Epstein was the source of donations Lloyd facilitated. "I facilitated the submission of the donation approval request to the MIT officers exactly so that they could vet it. MIT knew that the donor was Epstein and fully approved the donation with this knowledge," Lloyd said. He also said he used the $60,000 donation to support research and acknowledged Epstein's support in related research papers.

When Epstein made his $850,000 in donations to MIT, there was no formal policy against accepting funding from "controversial" donors, the investigation found. But three administrative vice presidents -- R. Gregory Morgan, Jeffrey Newton, and Israel Ruiz -- knew of the source. Morgan and Newton are retired. Ruiz is set to step down from his position at MIT this year.

"Regardless of their intent, these administrators were aware of the risk that the donations might become public, but did not adequately consider the potential damage accepting donations from a convicted sex offender could cause to the MIT community," the investigation found. "Further, they did not adequately consider or guard against the reasonably foreseeable possibility that, in attempting to cultivate more and larger donations from Epstein, Ito and others would allow Epstein repeated access to the MIT campus."

As for MIT's president, the investigation determined that he didn't know Epstein had visited the campus at least nine times, nor did he know about Epstein's donations at the time.

"President Reif was not contemporaneously aware of Epstein's donations, was not aware that MIT was accepting donations from a convicted sex offender and accused pedophile, and had no role in approving MIT's acceptance of the donations," the report said. In September, Reif sent a note to the MIT community, saying Goodwin Procter had found a copy of "a standard acknowledgment letter" that he'd signed thanking Jeffrey Epstein for a donation. 

"I apparently signed this letter on August 16, 2012, about six weeks into my presidency," Reif wrote. "Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature." Reif also said then that Epstein donations were talked about during at least one regular team meeting where Reif was present and that MIT "could and should have asked more questions about Jeffrey Epstein."

In response to the Goodwin Procter report released Friday, MIT's Executive Committee made five recommendations, including better vetting of donors and a policy on potentially problematic donations. 

Originally published Jan. 10.
Updates, Jan. 11: Adds that Lloyd declined to comment. Jan. 16: Adds Lloyd comment..