- Last week, MIT disclosed that it accepted donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, even after the allegations about him were revealed.
- Much of the money Epstein gave went to support the MIT Media Lab.
- Since the revelation, several high profile members of the MIT community, including Media Labs director Joi Ito, have resigned.
- Students and faculty on campus expressed their frustration and disappointment with the school’s administration with a series of protest actions in the last week.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
CAMBRIDGE – It was a Friday evening in early September, and Mani Mengiste, a chemistry graduate student at MIT, was tossing and turning. She couldn’t sleep.
The 23-year-old had just read Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece exposing the extent of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to the prestigious tech school. The story revealed that for years, MIT officials had quietly consulted with the alleged billionaire, solicited his funds, and marked sizable cash donations from him as anonymous, despite supposedly banning him from a list of donors.
“I read it, couldn’t sleep,” she recalled.
It was only the first week of the fall semester, but the scandal, which had been steadily brewing all summer, struck a nerve. In August, the university had admitted to accepting $US800,000 from Epstein over the course of roughly 20 years, but this was a new punch to the gut.
“We enabled a child sex trafficker,” she told Insider. “How can I not be disgusted? He used [the] MIT name to protect himself. He used connections that he may have made here to protect himself. He associated himself with faculty that I respect – with us.”
Epstein, who essentially acted as a broker between MIT’s affluent donors and the school, had secured millions for MIT’s Media Lab from tech giants like Bill Gates. That prospect sickened her.
As she laid awake, she realised she needed to speak up.
“There was a lot of discussion and discourse outside of MIT about MIT, but it felt like there wasn’t much discourse at MIT,” she explained. “It felt very lonely because no one was talking about it.”
Were other students as outraged as she was? Mengiste was about to find out. Eight minutes before midnight on Sept. 6, she logged into Twitter and typed out a call to arms.
“Hi,” the post began. “I’m going to protest outside the Prez’s office every day starting on Monday about this. I cannot, in good conscience, just stand by and watch cover-ups happen.”
That weekend, Mengiste went to Target, bought construction paper, a Sharpie, and went to work on planning a sit-in outside MIT president Rafael Reif’s office. Following a computer science class a couple days later, she posted up outside the president’s office.
As students, administrative staff, and faculty fluttered by, she sat in the hallway clutching her sign that read, “In bed with Epstein. What are we doing about it?”
A president who knew and a staff who helped conceal Epstein’s donations
Last week Reif announced the school hired private law firm Goodwin Procter to conduct a fact-finding mission into Epstein’s financial dealings with the school. But days later, Reif revealed that he, too, was complicit in accepting Epstein’s cash. The president disclosed that Goodwin Procter found a copy of a 2012 letter thanking Epstein for a gift to physics professor Seth Lloyd, who admitted his signature was on the letter as well.
“I apparently signed this letter on August 16, 2012, about six weeks into my presidency,” Reif wrote. “Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature.”
Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, who was chiefly responsible for working with directors and staff at the research laboratory to conceal large donations from Epstein, resigned the day after the New Yorker article published.
Then, prolific software programmer and MIT professor Richard Stallman resigned, after making controversial comments about Epstein on a listserv email that went viral. Stallman suggested sex with underage women didn’t constitute sexual assault and disputed the idea that Epstein’s victims had been “coerced” into sex with him.
“We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing,” Stallman wrote.
He has since resigned.
A protest at the president’s office
By around this time, Mengiste had connected with a coalition of campus activists who were planning a mass protest at Reif’s office on Sept. 13. That day, she stood on the steps of a campus building a few hundred yards from the president’s office. A megaphone rested at her feet as she rallied dozens of students and faculty in preparation of swarming the corridor outside Reif’s office.
“They knew!” several chanted as she spoke about MIT’s handling of Epstein’s money. Moments later, she and other organisers, led a trove of protesters through the hallways outside Reif’s office, where they camped out for about an hour.
“I’m disgusted by the inability of the administration to recognise it’s lack of moral character and lack of disregard for its constituents – its students, its faculty, its staff – that they don’t have an ounce of say in the terrible actions that the institution does behind doors,” Lulis Solis, a 19-year-old protester and mechanical engineering student at MIT, said.
Some called for Reif’s resignation, while others demanded a transparency overhaul of MIT’s donation machine.
“I’d like to see [MIT] completely publish all of the donors, whether they’re anonymised or not, so that students can have a say in whether or not this is who they want funding their educations and their opportunities,” Solis said.
Other protesters were worried the scandal was reopening old wounds, particularly for sexual assault survivors.
“We have young women here who have experienced assault, who have experienced pedophilia, who have experienced workplace harassment, all of the kind of viciousness and those memories are being triggered,” said Nina Lytton, a 61-year-old MIT alumni and chaplain, said.
“I’m worried for people’s safety, I’m worried for their hearts, I’m worried for their spirits,” she added. “We need to stop running a laundromat for dirty money.”
Ethan Zuckerman, another prominent Media Lab faculty member, also resigned last month – but for very different reasons than Stallman.
“As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab,” Zuckerman wrote.
He said that the “Media Lab’s ties to Epstein went much deeper” than he could have ever imagined. Zuckerman, one of the first MIT faculty members to publicly speak out against Epstein’s secret donations, has been joined by other concerned – and ashamed professors.
‘Any boundary will be crossed in order to bring in the money’
“There’s a boundary here that’s been crossed,” Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, told Insider as she huddled amongst the campus activists.
“But any boundary will be crossed in order to bring in the money.”
MIT isn’t the only elite post-secondary institution embroiled in scandal over Epstein donations. Harvard also reportedly took $US8 million in donations from the convicted pedophile. Both schools have pledged to either match funds given by Epstein or divert unused portions of those donations to charities that work with victims of sex crimes.
As for Mengiste, she plans to continue occupying Reif’s office every Monday until the university’s fact-finding mission is made public.
“It’s helped me channel a lot of turmoil,” the 23-year-old said.
“I love MIT,” she added. “I came here for a reason – I love science. MIT has done a lot of good for the world and will continue to do a lot of good for the world. So doing this makes me feel like I’m contributing to making MIT a wonderful place.”
- Read more:
- MIT took ‘approximately $US800,000’ in donations from Jeffrey Epstein’s charities, MIT’s president says in apology letter
- Jeffrey Epstein gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to MIT’s Media Lab, and its founder said he would accept the donations again if given the chance
- MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito resigns after New Yorker exposé shows he quietly worked with Epstein to secure anonymous donations
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.