Opinion guest column

The case of Seth Lloyd is a microcosm of the systemic problems at MIT

Months after the Epstein scandal blew up, administrators are still protecting themselves and senior professors from facing any kind of accountability

Seth Lloyd, a tenured professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, should never have been teaching this semester. This summer, it was revealed that Lloyd took funding from child sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, and that he visited Epstein during his prison sentence in the Palm Beach county jail. Despite this, MIT did not suspend Lloyd from teaching, nor did the administration prevent him from advising first-year undergraduates. Once the semester started, Lloyd used his classroom as a soapbox to monologue about his relations with Epstein. As a result, at least one student dropped his class. Since learning of this full situation, MIT Students Against War has been demanding that Seth Lloyd be fired or resign.

On Thursday, Oct. 31, MIT Students Against War (MITSAW) staged a silent protest outside of Seth Lloyd’s quantum computation class. In response, the students were sent to a different classroom while Lloyd lectured over video link from their usual classroom. MIT assigned three police officers to guard the classroom where the students were and four to guard the classroom in which Seth Lloyd delivered the lecture. It is telling that the administration is more worried about a few students with signs than the situation they are protesting.

During our protest, a student currently enrolled in Lloyd’s class told MITSAW that they did not want their classmates to find out they were there because they were concerned these classmates would not agree with their views. We also found out that Professor Lloyd had even encouraged the use of class time for a debate between his student supporters and the protesters. It is clear that the irresponsible actions of the MIT administration have allowed Professor Lloyd to turn his class — which is supposed to focus on quantum computation — into a forum to garner support for his actions and tacitly intimidate those who disagree into silence. As Eleanor Graham’s recent opinion piece made clear, students should not have to be taught by a professor who needs to use class time to defend his rehabilitation of a child sex trafficker. Allowing Seth Lloyd to continue to teach at MIT is deeply harmful to students from a psychological, emotional, and pedagogical point of view.

After the class ended, we spoke to Seth Lloyd outside his classroom for more than 30 minutes. He confirmed having visited Epstein’s notorious island in the Virgin Islands, the same island where Epstein allegedly kept girls hostage and raped them. He repeatedly justified his choice to accept funding from Epstein as a normal thing one does to rehabilitate a friend who has served time in prison. In the course of our conversation, Lloyd admitted that he never looked into the public allegations against Jeffrey Epstein and sought to frame himself as the victim of Epstein’s guile. 

“Yeah well, I went, the times when I visited his house and his island were at a conference. It was with scientists and their spouses. ... There was a conference in the Virgin Islands on astrobiology, and he had a lunch for the people in the conference and their spouses who were with them. It was a very kind of like family time kind of thing. There wasn’t anything suspicious.”

Lloyd openly admitted that he trusted the words of Epstein and did not even bother to investigate the allegations of Epstein’s many victims. We assert that this displays such a severe degree of negligence that he should no longer be employed at MIT. It seems to us that Epstein’s offer of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding — some of which Lloyd used to take a sabbatical — was all it took for Lloyd to turn a blind eye to Epstein’s many crimes.

“It wasn’t money that I needed. I took it because I thought that it was my obligation to do so, because I had said I was going to help with him coming back into society.”

When we questioned Lloyd about these matters, he continually deflected by trying to shift the conversation to the abstract question of rehabilitating people with criminal pasts. In doing so he attempted to frame his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein as a noble endeavor to help a friend who had made a mistake. Lloyd made no mention of the fact that allegations had emerged that Epstein abused trafficked women while on “work leave” during his sentence. Absent from his justification was any serious grappling with the fact the friend in question was a multi-millionaire pedophile sex trafficker. The absurdity of Lloyd’s reasoning was most evident when he repeatedly implied that taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from Epstein helped rehabilitate him.

Funding for research and a sabbatical has not been the only material benefit Seth Lloyd received from his close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. On Oct. 28, 2019, three days before MITSAW’s silent protest, a “talk” by Lloyd was uploaded to the website of Edge, the organization that until 2015 received the majority of its funding from Epstein and which hosted the notorious “billionaire dinners” that have been recently scrutinized in the news media. Buzzfeed recently published an exposé detailing the relationship between Epstein and Edge, which was run by John Brockman, the literary agent who sat at the center of the network of patronage that helped connect Epstein with elite scientists and shield his reputation. To this day, Lloyd continues his relationship with Brockman and maintains a series of other relationships with people and organizations closely linked to Epstein. This shows that he has not reckoned with the impact of his actions or those of others who enabled Epstein to commit his monstrous crimes.

MIT has a documented record of failing to deal with inappropriate and harmful behavior by faculty. In one out of multiple such cases in the last year, Richard Stallman was pressured to resign from CSAIL when a series of people came forward to describe having been harassed in some manner by him over the last several decades. In a recent survey on sexual misconduct at MIT, it was found that that MIT faculty and instructors made up 18.1 percent of the instigators of harassment, which was almost double the national average of 9.6 percent. This is further evidence of this administration’s inability to hold prominent faculty members accountable for their behavior. 

When asked about Seth Lloyd at the Nov. 5 community forum, Provost Marty Schmidt read a statement effectively stating that they had placed the decision-making power on the students currently in Lloyd’s class and alleging that they had opened up channels, direct and anonymous, for student feedback. Two days later, on Nov. 7, an email was sent to students in Seth Lloyd’s class from the department heads of physics, mathematics, and mechanical engineering, announcing that they had decided to keep Lloyd assigned to the class through the rest of the semester. The logic behind this decision-making process is quite concerning. It shows that the MIT administration believes that if the majority of the students in the class do not raise their voices in opposition to Seth Lloyd, then he should be allowed to teach. However, as the #MeToo movement has shown, powerful men often use their positions of authority to silence criticism. Since the start of the semester, Seth Lloyd has repeatedly used class time to talk about and justify his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. During the confrontation with MITSAW recounted above, Lloyd defended this use of class time by declaring that academia “is a tough business” and that students deserve the truth about his actions so they can “make their own decisions” about whether to stay in the class. Whether or not Professor Lloyd has insidious intent, his place at the front of the classroom gives him all the power in dictating the terms of discussion — discussion that shouldn’t be happening in the first place, given what he has admitted to.

The group from which the administration is soliciting feedback excludes the students, like Eleanor, who dropped the class because of Lloyd. Soliciting feedback in this manner allows the administration to wash its hands of the inevitable outrage over the decision to retain Seth Lloyd as a professor. They can simply claim to be following the lead of the students in the class. This ignores the fact that many still in the class are unlikely to come forward for fear of reprisal and for lack of faith in administrative processes. 

The callous approach by the MIT administration has placed many students in a difficult position. While meeting with an administrator, an anonymous student still in the class received unprompted and resolute insistence that Lloyd would keep teaching, including an argument that any immediate discipline would lead to a slippery slope under which many other professors could face similar consequences. As for the dynamic of students in the class, they told us, “Yeah it’s kind of a conflict of interest because we might be uncomfortable with Lloyd, and some of us definitely are, but this is the only class on the subject at MIT, and for many it fills a requirement or otherwise affects your schedule going on.”

Rather than take any meaningful action on behalf of the well-being of students, MIT has chosen to face them with an unending, unsympathetic bureaucracy. Students are forced to go from meeting to meeting presenting their resurfaced trauma in the hopes that these efforts will result in a never-to-come change. The higher-ups are responsible for the retraumatization of a vast marginalized part of its community. One must ask: to what end? 

The reality is that MIT and its administration function to protect the powerful at all costs. The administration is working to do damage control for its long-standing relationship with Jeffrey Epstein in an attempt to preserve its own power, reputation, and influence. They are doing this instead of adopting a survivor and trauma-centered process. In what has become one of the largest sexual assault scandals in the U.S., MIT has taken anything but responsible action. There is a rot at MIT. This “process” has only shined a spotlight on it. As a community, we must speak out in solidarity with survivors everywhere now, or we will be responsible for perpetuating the violence and oppression that so many face here at MIT and around the world.

It should have been an easy choice to suspend Professor Lloyd from teaching and advising before the semester ever began when Lloyd released his apology and stated what he had done. The quantum computation course has been taught by other professors in the past and could have been taught by any of them this fall. By deferring any action until a vaguely-defined “fact-finding” process has been completed, MIT continues to punish survivors and other students, who are rightly disturbed, by forcing them, if they wish to pursue their course of study, to take a class taught by a professor who had a close and long-standing relationship with an international sex trafficker who ruined the lives of hundreds of teenaged girls. We want to be very clear: the non-action by MIT administrators has dealt direct harm to students like Eleanor, who are now being swept under the rug as if the only voices that matter are those who have decided to stay in Seth Lloyd’s class and feel comfortable enough to speak their minds on the issue. The impact of allowing Lloyd to continue teaching extends far beyond the classroom, but it seems that as far as MIT is concerned, these people are irrelevant to Institute decision-making.

As the administrator whose comments appeared earlier implied, there is a clear explanation for why no action has been taken: it follows that if obvious moral standards are placed on professors like Seth Lloyd, then they would also need to be placed on administrators, like President Rafael Reif, who were complicit in their behavior. It would require holding other professors accountable for their associations with child sex traffickers (a high bar, apparently). There would need to be a real reckoning with the clear pattern, mentioned above, of faculty engaging in harassment and assault of students and others in the community. The MIT administration has no interest in holding itself accountable at the highest levels. By drawing out and obfuscating this “fact-finding” process as long as possible, they are hoping that the outrage on campus and in the media will subside so that they can continue to preserve the status quo.

At a September faculty meeting, faced with calls for his resignation, President Reif responded, “I want to beg you, honest to goodness, wait a little longer.” We will not wait a day longer. We will not wait for these conversations to happen weeks from now, in a back room, on terms dictated by the very people who committed the relevant offenses. We will not wait as the MIT administration continues to protect their own reputations and careers while trampling the most vulnerable members of our population. The “right time” for action has already passed.

The full transcripts described in this article can be read in MITSAW's piece on Medium.