Seth Lloyd should continue teaching at MIT
We should not assume the worst of our professors when they apologize and try to make amends
By now we’re all aware of the Jeffery Epstein scandal and the public apology letter Professor Seth Lloyd released on Medium. Specifically, there have been two guest opinion articles published in The Tech thus far calling for Professor Lloyd to be removed from his position teaching the class 18.435 (Quantum Computation) because of his involvement with the situation. As a student who is also taking the class and was present for the MIT Students Against War (MITSAW) protest, I want to share my own thoughts on the matter since, up until now, only one side of this controversy has had its voice made public.
The escalation of this issue to its current state started with the article “Seth Lloyd should not be teaching at MIT,” which condemned Professor Lloyd for his handling of the Jeffery Epstein topic in class. Essentially, Professor Lloyd took the beginning of the first lecture of 18.435 to discuss the Epstein issue in an attempt to inform us students and address any concerns that were brought up. No one voiced any concerns in class (I know I personally wanted to take more time to mull over my thoughts on the matter), so Professor Lloyd then clarified that if anyone wanted to voice their concerns privately, they were free to email him or set up a meeting. It seemed to me that Professor Lloyd was genuinely trying to make sure that the students were up to speed on the matter and felt like they could be heard or be safe in class. That said, the attempt was evidently not successful, since a student soon after dropped the class and then later published the article calling for Professor Lloyd to be fired.
I think it’s incredibly unfortunate that, in an attempt to be forthright, Professor Lloyd discussing the issue may have made some students (at least one) feel even more alienated and uncomfortable with being in the class. During the protest, Professor Lloyd explained that he too wishes he knew better what could have been done to make students feel safe; he did offer a trigger warning and also mentioned that students should feel free to leave if they felt uncomfortable with the topic. It could be seen as somewhat unfair to expect students to leave the class in a conspicuous way. However, I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that he was overly inattentive to his students’ feelings by bringing the topic up. He has been condemned for discussing the topic in class and for asking students how they think such a topic should be handled. But the point of him doing so was to clear the air, and to that end, I think being open about the topic was the best course of action for him to take for the sake of us students.
It is still regrettable that not everyone felt comfortable in the class, and those students’ emotional responses are completely valid. However, I don’t think dropping the class was necessary, since he and the TA would have worked with students who had concerns. For example, when I have been forced to miss class I was able to email the TA and receive class notes and problem set problems. Therefore, I don’t think it stands to say that Professor Lloyd being the teacher of the class bars women or the morally opposed from taking it. I think students would be accommodated if they felt incapable of being in the same lecture room with him.
The second article was written by MITSAW. However, the article was in reference to the protest that occurred and the greater context of Seth Lloyd as a professor. The general idea of the piece seemed to be that, by allowing Professor Lloyd to continue teaching, the Institute would be making the statement that it wished to brush the issue under the rug and has no regard for marginalized student groups. This is, in my opinion, actually the exact opposite message that would be sent. I am immensely concerned with the precedent that removing Professor Lloyd from his position would set.
As I see his intentions, the point of his initial apology and of him bringing to attention his past actions was for Professor Lloyd to take public responsibility for what he saw as a mistake of moral inattention. As he has said before, he did not see receiving Epstein’s money as a directly wrong action, but once he realized that he had inadvertently bolstered the man’s social network — legitimizing him and making it more difficult for his victims to speak out — he felt an immediate need to apologize. I agree that it was wrong to have accepted Epstein’s money, but I respect the fact that he publicly apologized and has been taking ownership of his decision.
The Goodwin Procter fact-finding is still ongoing, so calling for immediate action seems unreasonable. Until the investigation is completed, we have to assume that only the currently known facts are true, and given those facts, Professor Lloyd’s involvement was minimal and his handling thus far has been fair. Our community should respect the standard of innocent until proven guilty. The calls for his removal claim that, by waiting for the investigation to conclude, the administrative staff would just be trying to sweep the issue under the rug. However, I think that is precisely what would be shown if he were to be removed — that the university will distance itself from this scandal at any cost, with no regard to the moral implications of such a decision.
Students’ emotional safety is a hot-button concern right now (and a legitimate one), but no one that I have talked to is concerned with making sure MIT is a place where the faculty and staff feel safe to take responsibility for their moral fallibility as humans and to make amends for any mistakes they have made. How can MIT expect to avoid catastrophes like this Epstein situation in the future, if it incentivizes faculty not to confront and apologize for any moral failings they feel they have been involved with? And how can this institution try to produce students that hold themselves to moral standards if it enacts precedents that dissuade our professors — our role models — from even discussing moral issues as they experience them in their own present-day lives?
I don’t want to wake up one morning and find myself attending an MIT where the student-professor relationship has become sterilized to a mere exchange of information, void of humanity or experiential insights. Right now, we as students do have the power to push for the policies, committees, and most importantly, the precedents that we want to be set. Let’s aim for the right ones. Retribution is not the answer. As members of this community, we must be empathetic to each other and to the faculty and staff, if we can hope for this situation to be rectified in a constructive manner for MIT going forward.
Rion Tolchin is a member of the MIT Class of 2022 studying physics.