Seth Lloyd should not be teaching at MIT
Seth Lloyd took money from Epstein. When will he be held accountable?
I often find myself required to make difficult decisions about my schedule. These decisions range from whether to take a light load and focus on research to whether to drop a technical class and explore the arts, among many broader questions about my graduation and future. Until this semester, however, I have never been asked to decide whether or not I am willing to learn from a man who knowingly took donations from a convicted pedophile.
When I saw Seth Lloyd’s name on my registration, as the professor for 18.435 (Quantum Computation), I wanted to believe it was a scheduling error. Two weeks prior, the MIT administration had released a statement that the Institute had taken money from Jeffrey Epstein, with the money going to the Media Lab and Seth Lloyd. I knew he had taught the class in previous years, and I knew MIT could be slow with scheduling. Surely it was a holdover, something they hadn’t had time to update after finding a last-minute replacement. Still, I stayed up late that night, reading and rereading Seth Lloyd’s public apology on Medium. I decided to go to class with the hope that I’d find one of two things in the classroom: either a new professor, or a reformed Seth Lloyd.
We began our first day of class normally, even as Seth Lloyd stood at the front of the room. We went over the syllabus, raising our hands to let him know if we’re course 6, course 8, course 18, course 15. Then he turned to us and said that he was about to talk about something that might be upsetting. “How many of you have heard of Jeffrey Epstein?”
One student in the front row didn’t raise his hand. Seth Lloyd frowned at him. “I’m sorry. Some of this material may be shocking if you aren’t aware of it, but it’s important for you to hear.”
There was no opportunity to leave the room. Even though Seth Lloyd recognized that this was a difficult conversation, he did not provide a safe way to exit the situation; just an assumption that whatever he had to say was more important than our own mental health and safety.
Let me be perfectly clear: there was nothing that Seth Lloyd could possibly have had to say that would be more important, not least of all what he ended up saying. The second he used his power as a professor to confine us in that classroom while he monologued for half an hour about his experiences with Jeffrey Epstein, any base that his apologies could possibly have rested on was eroded. There was no information that couldn’t have been sent in an optional email to the class. This was a power play, pure and simple.
Everything that Seth Lloyd said in that classroom has remained private, even though much of it is shocking and informative. Seth Lloyd asked us not to share one small section near the end of the monologue, a section that I would characterize as vaguely positive and non-incriminating. I have followed this request. The rest of the speech was fair game, though nobody has taken him up on this until now.
“How many of you have read my apology on Medium?” Thinking of my sleepless night, I raised my hand. Most of the room kept their hands down. Seth Lloyd looked at us, bemused. “In my freshman advising seminar, everyone looked it up beforehand.”
Seth Lloyd is advising freshmen. I don’t think this fact has been widely publicized: Seth Lloyd is advising freshmen. The MIT administration has professed its supposed commitment to protecting freshmen from difficult situations. When it came to letting freshmen walk into a room during orientation and receive advice — yes, advice — from a man who visited Jeffrey Epstein in prison, they did nothing. They left incoming freshmen to anxiously read Seth Lloyd’s apology on Medium, every last one of them.
No more polls of the class. It was time for the apology, the monologue, the narrative, whatever you want to call it. Like so many others implicated in this scandal inside and outside MIT, Seth Lloyd first met Epstein through his agent, John Brockman. Epstein became Seth Lloyd’s research donor and then his friend.
When Epstein was first convicted in 2008, Seth Lloyd reached out to the women in his life for advice on what to do. His wife advised him not to take the money. He looked for a second opinion. His mother worked with at-risk youth in the prison system. Seth Lloyd said that of the students she worked with, the ones who received support were least likely to reoffend. It was unclear to me whether Seth Lloyd actually asked his mother about Epstein’s specific case here. I’m assuming not. The idea that a multimillionaire was engaging in pedophilia because he was unsupported by society is laughable.
Still, with this advice in hand, Seth Lloyd decided to visit Epstein in prison to see if he had any intentions of reforming. He noted that by the time he visited Epstein, Epstein was already on partial house arrest, having used his power and status to talk his way out of staying in the prison proper. Seth Lloyd asked the question that he came to ask, and says that Epstein said the following: “I am going to do whatever I have to do not to go back to prison.”
At the time, Seth Lloyd interpreted this as a statement of reform from a man that had been scared straight. Now, judging from the meaningful looks he gave the class and the resulting gasps, Seth Lloyd saw it as a harbinger of Epstein’s eventual suicide in prison, a decade later. There’s a simpler interpretation too: these were the words of a man who was determined to use his power in order to get away with his crimes.
After his release from prison, Epstein slowly returned to hosting conferences and making philanthropic donations. Seth Lloyd claimed that he was happy to see Epstein reintegrate with society and saw this philanthropy as Epstein paying his debt to society. He took Epstein’s money, on two separate instances since Epstein’s conviction, for two reasons. First, he was still funded by a grant from before Epstein’s conviction, so he reasoned that his name was already associated with Epstein. Second, he wanted to do Epstein a favor and support his continued reform by allowing him to pursue philanthropy. He claimed that he was well-funded by existing grants and did not need the money for research, but did use it to take a sabbatical.
Let me reiterate: Seth Lloyd claims that he took money from a “reformed” pedophile as a personal favor to said pedophile. A simple internet search, as Seth Lloyd acknowledges, would have revealed that said pedophile was in fact not “reformed” at all.
Seth Lloyd admitted that he ignored all of the warning signs. He characterized his own mistakes as “crimes of inattention” and acknowledged that he had the privilege to not pay attention while many others had no choice. He said that as soon as he heard the allegations, he cut off ties with Epstein and began trying to make amends with everyone harmed by the situation. He said that he always believes sexual assault survivors, on principle. He drew from examples of students he’s worked with as an advisor. He detailed the attempts that he’s made to return Epstein’s money and support assault survivors. This part is the apology, much of it familiar from the public Medium post.
I don’t think Seth Lloyd’s apology was any better or worse than the dozens of apologies that we’ve seen in the past few months from others involved in the Epstein scandal. However, it was directly invalidated by everything else that I saw in that classroom. If Seth Lloyd had quietly directed the class to the online apology, made an anonymous form for comments, and not subjected us to this performance, I don’t think I would be writing this article. By not providing a safe way for students to opt out of listening to the apology, by continuing to require mandatory attendance for this semester’s class (enforced by only providing the problem sets in lecture), by constantly saying “victims” instead of “survivors” and then loudly correcting himself, Seth Lloyd continued to perform crimes of inattention throughout the entire class, albeit on a smaller scale. What does this say about his capacity to reform?
In his final remark, after the apology, Seth Lloyd returned to the subject of Epstein himself. He said that “Jeffrey Epstein was a charming friend, likeable. I was taken in by it. Nobody should have died like that. He needed to go to trial.”
Then Seth Lloyd turned to us, the students. He looked across the room, contemplating us. Few people seemed to meet his eyes.
“What should I do now?” he asked, and is met with silence. An idea occurred to him, as if he suddenly understood why we were quiet.
“If you have concerns that you want to share in private, you can set up a meeting in my office.” He seemed surprised, even disappointed, when the silence intensified. As if he was waiting for us to tell him what to do.
One person asked a question about the broader ethics of research funding, without touching on the particulars of the Epstein case. After answering this and receiving no more questions, Seth Lloyd took our silence as permission to return to business as usual. He made jokes for the rest of class, shared rambling personal anecdotes about the academic hiring process, and ended with a ten-minute discussion on the basics of information theory (the only academic content in the entire lecture). I staggered out of the room an hour later, contemplating my options.
I did not speak up in that classroom. I did not meet Seth Lloyd privately in his office. The comments to my advisor in the add/drop form I submitted that afternoon were profoundly bland: “The teaching style of 18.435 didn't work well for me so I'm dropping it.” I assumed that if I kept my head down, someone else would confront him, someone who would be taking less of a risk with their future career. Maybe, just maybe, one of the people whose job it was to deal with this.
The next day, the New Yorker broke its story about Joi Ito’s concealment of the true scope of Epstein’s donations to MIT. Amid calls for Ito’s resignation and questions about the Media Lab’s future, Seth Lloyd slipped under the radar. President Reif announced an investigation into Epstein’s involvement with MIT, claiming that Goodwin Procter would look for additional evidence and hidden donations. But we already know that Seth Lloyd has taken money from Epstein. We’ve known that for months. What about the promised investigation into him?
Nobody else is going to tell Seth Lloyd what he should do. Nobody besides the students. He was wrong to look to us for advice, but that’s not going to keep me from answering.
As long as Seth Lloyd teaches at MIT, our institution suffers. The opportunity to study quantum computation should not be restricted by how easily you can put aside your moral discomfort regarding a man who takes money from pedophiles as a supposed act of charity. This is a barrier to learning for survivors of sexual assault, for women (after all, Epstein’s survivors are women), and for others upon others. The next generation of scientists depends on precisely the people who are excluded by Seth Lloyd’s class.
I hold no resentment towards anyone who continues to take classes from Seth Lloyd. As students, we have been put in a difficult position, forced to choose between our morals and our professional development. We should not have been placed in this situation. MIT should have put its foot down at the start of the semester. I cannot fault anyone for deciding not to take on this burden for themselves, except the MIT administration.
Over and over again, the pattern that emerged in Seth Lloyd’s apology is inattention — that he needs to be explicitly told when he has done wrong. This inattention is wildly incompatible with the responsibilities of a teacher and an advisor. It is unacceptable to expect Seth Lloyd’s students and advisees to spend their own time and effort reforming him by pointing out every new crime of inattention. If Seth Lloyd is looking to be told by students where he has done wrong, here it is: by continuing to teach, by continuing to advise undergraduate and graduate students, by continuing to be a part of our scientific community, Seth Lloyd is continuing to do harm. Seth Lloyd should not remain at MIT.
Eleanor Graham is a member of the MIT Class of 2020 studying physics.