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MIT Technology Review

The moment of reckoning

President L. Rafael Reif addressed the faculty following news of MIT’s relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Here’s the essence of what he said.

October 24, 2019

As the semester was getting under way, news of Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to MIT shocked the campus and led to the resignation of Media Lab director Joi Ito. (Facing charges of sex trafficking of minors, Epstein committed suicide in August.) MIT launched an internal review and hired a law firm to conduct a fact-finding investigation. Preliminary findings showed that senior MIT administrators were aware of MIT connections to Epstein and that President Reif signed an acknowledgment letter to him. A condensed version of Reif’s remarks at the September 18 faculty meeting follows. For the full text, and a summary of the Epstein revelations, see www.technologyreview.com/epstein.

I know all of you work as hard as you can every day to advance our mission. And I know you are accustomed to feeling proud of MIT.

So I am deeply distressed, and I am deeply sorry, that steps which I and others took, and failed to take, have been part of bringing this trouble to all of you—to the people of MIT. I understand that I have let you down and damaged your trust in me, and that our actions have injured both the Institute’s reputation and the fabric of our community.

I made mistakes of judgment. I take responsibility for those errors. And I hope to take responsibility for the work that must begin now: repairing the damage and rebuilding trust.

MIT is known for its willingness to face difficult facts, and to run toward problems, not away from them.

"I feel a deep responsibility to help repair a system and a culture that failed the people of MIT."

We are already taking some steps in that direction, with the fact-finding and a review of gift acceptance practices. But the two reviews focus mainly on process. And our processes and practices reflect some entrenched and destructive attitudes and cultural assumptions at MIT.

I know that many people have deep concerns about sources we have relied on to raise funds for the work of the Institute. In this time of growing fortunes and shrinking federal funds, we need to look at everything from the changing nature of the donor population to how we should weigh the political, cultural, and economic impacts of donors’ behavior. We need to examine the issues associated with anonymous giving—and much more.

And—beyond the serious problems around gifts and donors—female faculty, postdocs, students, and staff across MIT are telling me this is a “last straw” moment, that allowing Jeffrey Epstein to stain our reputation was only the latest example of how many in our community, and the tech world in general, devalue the lives, experiences, and contributions of women and girls.

I am humbled that it took this cascade of misjudgments for me to truly see this persistent dynamic and appreciate its full impact. It’s now clear to me that the culture that made possible the mistakes around Jeffrey Epstein has prevailed for much too long at MIT. We need to stop looking away from bad behavior and start taking the time to see what it costs us as a community. This moment of crisis must be the moment of reckoning—and a turn toward real accountability.

The questions raised in the last month are profound, especially the cultural ones. Some have even asked if MIT has lost its way. For me, the answer is an emphatic no. MIT is still MIT. It is still the remarkable community that drew us all here in the first place.

But this disturbing period has shed a harsh new light on some elements of our culture that are serving us very poorly. Since I played a role in this problem, I feel a deep responsibility to help repair a system and a culture that failed the people of MIT.

We need to identify and root out the cultural factors that contributed to these troubling errors and outcomes, so we can prevent damage like this in the future. We need to examine honestly what is wrong and work together to correct it.

Right now, I know that the most important thing I and MIT’s other senior leaders can do to “run toward” this problem is to listen—to listen to all of you. This is a difficult moment, but MIT will learn from it. I hope I can begin to regain your trust—and I believe that together we can, and we will, find a constructive path forward.