Opinion open letter

A letter to President Reif and Provost Schmidt regarding Epstein

By willingly building a relationship with Epstein, MIT has reinforced a culture that contributes to gender and racial inequity

To President Rafael Reif and Provost Marty Schmidt,

We write as senior women faculty members (current and emerita) of MIT to share our deep distress over the MIT/Epstein revelations and our profound disappointment in learning of the apparent complicity of administrative leadership. We write also to encourage efforts to uncover the truth about and learn from the current crisis. This letter is a call for integrity and action. 

From various departments across MIT, we are gravely concerned about the situation that has emerged: Institute leaders, faculty, and lab directors at MIT may have violated campus fundraising procedures. They certainly violated Institute values not only by accepting money from, but also by inviting onto campus Jeffrey Epstein, a level three (high risk of repeat offense) registered sex offender. MIT cultivated a relationship with Epstein over time that rewarded, empowered, and elevated him. With the approval of administrative leadership, faculty and staff attempted to conceal that relationship from those they knew it would disturb. Some students and staff who were asked to collude were made to feel morally compromised. Taking Epstein’s money suggested a willingness to turn a blind eye to the impact of his crimes, which included procuring the prostitution of a minor. The fact that this situation was even thinkable at MIT is profoundly disturbing and is symptomatic of broader, more structural problems involving gender and race in MIT’s culture. It is time for fundamental change. 

You have appointed the Goodwin Procter law firm to investigate fundraising practices and MIT personnel involved in this situation. This investigation follows a series of loudly-voiced concerns about MIT's acceptance of funding from controversial sources. While the ethics of fundraising are crucially important to us, we also strongly believe that the significant gender and sexual implications of the MIT/Epstein relationship must not be lost in these financial investigations and discussions. 

Epstein’s victims, survivors, and their families have experienced additional degradation and damage because of MIT’s actions, as have our students, faculty, and staff. By allowing Epstein’s MIT relationships to flourish, the Institute failed in its obligation to provide a safe and supportive environment. Knowing that Epstein was invited to campus offices, survivors of sexual assault, rape, and/or sexual abuse — of whom there are many in this community — have been shaken. How can MIT’s leadership be trusted when it appears that child prostitution and sex trafficking can be ignored in exchange for a financial contribution? 

Working to address its long history of gender inequity, MIT has enacted some positive measures over the years to attract and retain women students and faculty and to support them on campus. Yet those efforts are now at risk of being eroded. Epstein’s clandestine donations and visits to MIT are a stark reminder that “cutting edge” spaces of “technological innovation,” at MIT no less than elsewhere, remain exclusionary zones of privilege. Too often, academic fundraising efforts and the projects that follow reinforce, rather than dismantle, gendered and racialized hierarchies. In 2019-20, there are 1,066 faculty members at MIT. Only 266 of them are women (178 are tenured; 88 are untenured; of all women only 21 are women of color). The Epstein situation has prompted many to question MIT’s commitment to meaningful inclusion. Members of our community have been left feeling undervalued, deceived, and unsafe. 

How will MIT respond? MIT leadership regularly describes and celebrates the fact that our values and diversity are essential to building a better world. Yet, to our great and heartfelt dismay, MIT’s relationship with Epstein exposes a void where basic values should prevail, a cultural crisis that the administration must work to repair. Much needs to be done: from a thorough review of resource development practices and the inclusion of broader faculty participation in and oversight of fundraising, to providing robust support and resources to the women on campus. But that is just the beginning. 

Former MIT President Chuck Vest is remembered for conducting a gender equity study in 1999, led by Professor Nancy Hopkins, and implementing many of its recommendations. How will the current MIT administration be remembered?

This letter originated with a small group of senior women faculty in SHASS and SAP at MIT. You can see the full list of signatories here.