Student forum about MIT-Epstein relations held with Reif, senior admin present
Student speakers expressed disappointment, need for change
The Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council hosted a student forum Tuesday to discuss concerns about MIT’s relations with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier accused of sex trafficking. Undergraduate and graduate students spoke about their disappointment in the Institute’s leadership with respect to transparency in accepting donations, treatment of female-identifying members of the community, and prioritization of money over student sentiment.
Over 350 students attended the forum, as well as President L. Rafael Reif, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, and 22 deans and department heads including Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson.
UA President Mahi Elango ’20 began the forum by saying, “Our discussion today is not only about Epstein, but also about the many axes about which we can feel and think our way through these difficult questions,” such as “our cultural treatment of women at MIT,” “our organizational structure and shared governing system, including the role of individual judgement,” “our process for vetting and accepting funds,” and “our fundamental values around technology and knowledge production.”
She was followed by GSC President Peter Su G, who informed attendees of the forum guidelines — each student speaker in the queue was allowed to speak for two minutes and would be monitored by student moderators — and introduced Reif, who delivered his opening remarks.
“The past few weeks have been a time of great distress for our community. I expect that the extant situation has left you feeling sad, disappointed, hurt, and angry, including angry at me, so I want to begin by saying, with my whole heart, that I am deeply sorry for the actions I took and failed to take that have been part of bringing this trouble to all of you, the students of MIT,” Reif said.
Reif then addressed the issues surrounding sources of funding. “In this time of growing fortunes and shrinking federal funds, we need to look at everything, from the changing nature of the donor population, to how we should weigh the political, physical, cultural, and economic impacts.”
He also spoke about the attitudes toward the Institute’s female population: “Female faculty, students, and staff across MIT are telling me that this is our last straw, that allowing Jeffrey Epstein to stain our reputation was only the latest example of how many in our community devalue the lives, experiences, and contributions of women and girls.”
Reif concluded his remarks by stating his intentions for the future of the Institute and the involvement of students, saying, “I’m committed to make this moment of crisis a moment of reckoning in our turn toward real accountability, and I believe that in the process, there will be a very important role for students because the future of MIT belongs to you. … I believe that together, we can find a way to transform so much pain for so many people into some enduring good for MIT.”
The forum then opened the floor to students who wished to speak. There were 27 students who spoke, including members of student organizations such as MIT Students Against War and UnKoch My Campus. Many expressed disappointment in the administration’s behavior and demanded greater consideration of students’ needs and values.
Several student speakers cited other questionable donors to the Institute besides Epstein.
“We have seen nothing but a fundamental betrayal of the trust invested into you, the senior administration. We, as students, have told you about these concerns repeatedly and consistently,” Lilly Chin G said.
“Fossil Free MIT warned you about the dangers of taking the Koch brothers’ money. … MIT Students Against War protested against your involvement with MBS, [Henry] Kissinger, and Chinese surveillance companies; you ignored them,” Chin continued, using an abbreviation for Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“All of these things have been ignored because donor money has been shown to trump student demands,” Chin said. “Please do not sweep this scandal under the rug, but take it as a learning opportunity to stop ignoring students over donors.”
Husayn Karimi G questioned the ethics of the College of Computing, funded by Stephen A. Schwarzman. “One thing we can learn from the Epstein scandal is that there's no such thing as money without strings attached. How can MIT talk about a new college being at the forefront of ethics, when its main funder was a Trump advisor, is pushing poor people out of their homes, partnering with some of the most repressive governments in the world, and burning down our planet?
“How can MIT possibly reconcile these values? … This is a question directly to you, Rafael Reif, why should we believe you? And why should you still be our president?” Karimi asked.
Reif responded, “I’m an open book; people know how I think, and people know what I think. I strongly believe that when we make a mistake, as I did in this case, we need to learn from those mistakes. And we need to try to do the best we can to repair the damage.”
When asked what he intended to do with these donations, Reif answered, “The Institution does what it wants to do with a gift for research, but it’s not controlled by the donor; that’s the level of principle we have right now. That may have worked very well in the past, but it just doesn’t work anymore today, so those principles have to be revisited. … That’s something we’re going to be doing exactly now. We’re going to be involving the community to address those principles.”
Other student speakers expressed their discomfort with being on a campus that had accepted donations from Epstein and their dissatisfaction with how little the administration had done to acknowledge their trauma.
“Why has the senior administration forgotten to even mention survivors of sexual violence and women-identifying folks at MIT who have been triggered like myself by the Epstein incident?” Mani Mengiste G asked.
“This has seriously affected us and we have not received one email stating resources at MIT, there has been no additional funding given to be VPR to support us,” Mengiste said, referring to Violence Prevention & Response.
Lindsey Backman G said, “I’m really tired of the sympathy toward gender-based discrimination but lack of action. I want more resources for VPR and MIT mental health. There should be enough counselors for all students here, and it’s also so crazy to me that to this day, we still don’t have support groups for survivors of sexual trauma.”
Reif addressed these accusations towards the end of the forum, saying, “It was extremely painful to see all the survivors that were reliving their pain because of this situation, and I’m extremely sorry to see you reliving all of that horrible experience.”
“I’m going to check my statements; I thought I commented on that. [If] I didn’t, … it was a tremendous oversight,” Reif said.
Speakers also demanded that Professor Seth Lloyd, who accepted gifts from Epstein and visited him in prison, resign.
Eleanor Graham ’20, a student who dropped Lloyd’s quantum computing class, said, “By letting Professor Lloyd teach, you are outsourcing your moral decisions to us, the students.”
“Simply by choosing what to put in our schedule, [we are] being asked to make a moral decision about what we support and what we can condone. That is not our job as students,” Graham said. “You should be making those decisions.”
Neil Gaikwad G said, “I think we need to reflect on the culture of research, science, engineering, and hiring."
Regarding discussions of faculty hiring, Gaikwad asked, “How many times do we hear what’s the character of this person, what kind of human values does this person have? Maybe this is the litmus test for all of us,” which will “determine whether we have made any progress … to define the science, to define the academic, and to define the future of this great institution.”
Though many student speakers were disillusioned by the administration’s role in accepting and anonymizing Epstein’s donations, some thanked Reif for his willingness to listen and his presence at the forum.
Addressing Reif, Chelsea Hodgkins G said, “It’s not respectful that the MIT corporation is not here. I applaud you that you're here. I appreciate that you're here. And the fact that it took this long, ... that's water under the bridge from where I'm coming from.”
“The corporation is a group of 11 executives … that are dictating all of this. And to be honest, if you want to help usher in a cultural change, serve as a door: help us open that door to get on the board, release the documents, stand behind the things that you're claiming to uphold as president,” Hodgkins continued.
Students also described changes they hoped to see at the Institute, including greater transparency regarding donations and a more democratic system for administrative procedures.
“From undergraduates to graduate students to faculty to staff and to admin, we all deserve a seat at the table. A community is defined by its constituents, and if we are to cultivate an ethical MIT, we must be open and honest with one another,” Luis Becerra Solis ’22 said.
“I implore the administration to not further obfuscate any of its interactions with any contributors of any kind. Information regarding programs and facilities funding must be made open to the MIT community. Candid and honest discussion must be continuous and will not stop at this forum,” Solis added.
Alonso Espinosa-Domínguez ’20 emphasized the potential of student organization in reforming the Institute, “We really have to, as students, pause, and really critically examine whose interests the Institute protects.”
“If you want to change the nature of that, it's not really with talking with the administration. The power to change it lies with us as a student body,” Espinosa-Domínguez said.
“It’s amazing that the community has come together to bring all of the different perspectives to address the issues and the flaws that exist in the MIT system. I’m just so proud of everyone who spoke up,” Ellie Simonson G said in an interview with The Tech after the student forum. “Once we hear each other’s suggestions, we can come together to start the changes that we want to see in our community.”
Reif ended the forum by saying, “Let me just make it clear that I respect the views you expressed.”
“I would have enjoyed much more to have an actual conversation,” Reif said. “I would love to figure out a way to do that, to have a conversation so that we can actually hear each other and truly learn from each other.”