Months After Epstein Scandal, MIT President Shares What He’s Learned

A survey indicated more than 200 female grad students had been harassed.

Sexual harassment. Stereotyping. Bullying behavior from “star” faculty members. According to MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif, these are just some of the “misalignments and fractures” plaguing the MIT community that have surfaced in the aftermath of the university’s Jeffrey Epstein scandal.

Since the revelation that MIT took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the convicted sex offender and worked very hard to keep it under wraps, Reif has gathered feedback from students, staff, alumni and parents through email, comment cards, public forums, and private meetings. In a letter to the MIT community sent yesterday, Reif summarized some of the key lessons he has taken away from his many conversations.

“Some of this feedback has been very difficult to hear—difficult, but necessary,” Reif writes. “Much of it must have taken great courage to deliver. All of it has been illuminating and helpful.”

In his letter, Reif first addresses the challenges women on campus face. At MIT, 189 women out of 2,035 female participants in a campus climate survey indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment on campus so severe that it impeded their academic or professional performance. 211 female graduate students reported harassment from a faculty or instructional staff member—their advisor, in 65 cases. Women faculty members also shared several accounts of systemic inequalities for women at the university.

Through conversations with the community, Reif says he also discovered that many of MIT’s administration and support staffers feel deeply undervalued by the university. They described feeling powerless and ignored, rendering them unable to put a stop to abusive and bullying behavior from male and female “faculty stars.” At a forum for staff to air their grievances, “speaker after speaker expressed a profound sense that as staff at MIT, they feel invisible, dispensable, isolated and last in line,” Reif writes.

To help MIT move forward, Reif plans to collect a “library” of strategies, and encourages everyone to participate in bringing any solutions that could potentially improve campus culture forward. Reif also hopes the community will collaboratively create “a process for examining values and culture that is tuned for the people of MIT.”

The letter comes nearly four months after Epstein was arrested for charges of sex trafficking of minors. After his arrest, stories about MIT’s deep ties to the financier began to surface, igniting outrage on campus. Joi Ito, who was then the director of the MIT Media Lab, admitted to taking funding from Epstein, and eventually resigned after the extreme lengths he went to in order to hide the donations became clear. MIT has brought in a law firm to conduct an external review of the university’s ties to Epstein, and the results are still pending.