Opinion guest column

A call for radical transparency over MIT’s relationship to Epstein

The administration has an obligation to release all documents related to Epstein and provide answers to lingering questions

Last Thursday, President Reif admitted that he was personally aware of Epstein’s donations and was present at several discussions about them. He also revealed that his high-level staff allowed an ongoing relationship with the registered sex offender while hiding it from public view. As the investigation continues, the MIT community deserves prompt and radical transparency for all Epstein documents, especially those collected from Reif’s office.

Some voices are calling for Reif’s immediate resignation. Reif's staff knew of Epstein's crimes and knew that a public connection with Epstein would be unsavory yet concluded that ongoing secret dealings with the sexual predator were fine. Other entities, like Harvard, apparently stopped accepting donations upon the sex crime conviction. MIT continued accepting them. Those decisions, under Reif’s leadership, have embarrassed MIT and have advanced the stereotype of the morally flexible scientist. The proper response, say some voices, is for Reif to immediately accept full responsibility and resign.

Other voices say that the president’s job has many facets, of which donor policy is a minuscule part. Reif signed a letter to Epstein, but how many other letters had he signed that week? Does he even read what he signs? He attends numerous meetings; could he have the perception, context, and memory to catch every potential problem from a thousand potential sources? He cannot possibly track every decision by every staff member.

Questions linger about the investigation itself. Reif’s decision to hire outside counsel is commendable, but it only occurred after high-profile media stories. Perhaps it should have begun earlier, upon Epstein’s arrest, given his known links to MIT (such as his long-known association with Professor Marvin Minsky). Why did the otherwise-communicative Reif remain silent until journalists uncovered the story? His high-level staff were aware of a multi-year Epstein connection, yet they began no public investigation or discussion until media pressure compelled it.

The Reif-Epstein matter will remain swirled in controversy and conjecture until MIT makes a transparent release of all emails, documents, and minutes related to Epstein. Confidence in MIT’s leadership is a true public good; the raw evidence — not just carefully-worded summaries — should be provided to all, not confined to a private committee. The documents uncovered by Goodwin Procter should be hosted on MIT’s website. This is an excellent opportunity for MIT to display its commitment to open data, moral leadership, and transparency. We are a data-driven community; give us the raw data.

Whether Reif should resign is not yet clear. It is possible that a few rogue staff members acted alone and in secret, their decisions undisclosed to Reif or other senior staff. It is possible that Reif was too busy or distracted to oversee donor management and to supervise the culture among his high-level staff. MIT should release unredacted data and let the community digest it. Secrecy got MIT into this mess. Let us reject secrecy now and bring everything into the light.

Jeff Brown is an alumnus of the class of 1999 (SB) and 2000 (MEng).