Education

After ‘deafening silence,’ Harvard opens review of Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to university

No university or charity or scientific society has been more closely associated in the public eye with Jeffrey Epstein than Harvard University, which received approximately $9 million from him over the years.

And no organization has seemingly been more adamant that it had nothing to explain, nothing to review, nothing to refund — even after Epstein later became the nation’s most notorious sexual predator.

That silence ended Thursday.

After refusing to comment for months on its past associations with Epstein and the money it collected as a result, Harvard released a letter from its president late Thursday stating that the school had opened a review into the matter.

“Epstein’s behavior, not just at Harvard, but elsewhere, raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors,” wrote Lawrence S. Bacow, who took over as president in June.

Bacow said the school’s review of Epstein’s connections began two weeks ago, and had turned up funds Epstein gave that are still in use.

This week, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper published an editorial blasting the school for what it called “deafening silence” on the matter. In late November, the Miami Herald reported Epstein had been the beneficiary of a highly unusual non-prosecution agreement. Despite credible claims from dozens of underage girls that Epstein had sexually abused them, the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida discarded a 53-page draft indictment, allowing Epstein to avoid a federal trial and potentially life in prison.

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Lawrence S. Bacow was named the 29th president of Harvard University this summer. Stephanie Mitchell Harvard University

The Herald’s series of stories on Epstein, Perversion of Justice, also explored how then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta — later President Donald Trump’s labor secretary — agreed to keep the non-prosecution agreement secret from Epstein’s victims. The articles brought renewed scrutiny to Epstein’s years of alleged sex trafficking.

Amid that fresh scrutiny, Epstein was arrested the first week of July and was awaiting trial in New York City when he was found dead in his cell Aug. 10. The death was termed a suicide.

The university “absolutely bears the responsibility to make a concrete statement denouncing its ties to Epstein,” the Crimson said in its editorial. It continued, “Not only did [this] silence further Epstein’s reputation while he was alive, it is also unfair to current Harvard students who must live with the knowledge that Epstein touted his affiliation with their school while University administrators stayed — then as now — silent.”

Harvard did not respond to a request from the Miami Herald for additional comment.

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Jeffrey Epstein, left, shown with lawyer and Harvard University law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, gave millions to Harvard. This event predated his guilty plea to prostitution charges in 2008. Rick Friedman Corbis via Getty Images

Though Epstein gave generously to multiple universities, Harvard was his preferred institution. In his letter, Bacow says that between 1998 and 2007, Epstein’s donations to the school totaled nearly $9 million, including a $6.5 million gift in 2003 to support the school’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics.

For years, Harvard reciprocated Epstein’s overtures: Photos from 2004 show Epstein socializing with then-President Lawrence Summers and distinguished law professor Alan Dershowitz. Through a representative, Summers declined to comment on Bacow’s letter. Dershowitz did not respond to a request for comment.

Also pictured in the photos is current Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. In an email, Pinker said Epstein “would pop up every now and again” at the school or with figures connected to the school.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Local Reporting Makes a Difference

In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.

Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.

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“I can’t say why Epstein was enamored with Harvard,” Pinker said. “Harvard is of course a brand name among universities. Epstein may just have wanted to add prestigious scientists and professors to his collection of celebrity acquaintances.”

Pinker said that while he found Epstein “annoyingly distractible and unserious,” “...to my bewilderment, he continued to insinuate himself with colleagues at Harvard and elsewhere.”

Bacow also acknowledges the previously unreported fact that in 2005, a former professor named Epstein a visiting fellow in the school’s Department of Psychology. The former professor, Stephen Kosslyn, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Bacow said the school had discovered that two sets of Epstein funds, totaling $186,000, were still being put to use through the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and that it would be redirecting those funds “to organizations that support victims of human trafficking and sexual assault.”

Bacow said the school did not accept any gifts after 2008, when Epstein was convicted on underage prostitution charges in state court in conjunction with the federal non-prosecution agreement, and emphasized that the school specifically rejected a gift from that year.

Barcow said one goal would be to learn how to “prevent these situations in the future.”

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