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Letter from President Reif: Learning from the facts and taking action

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Letter from President Reif: Learning from the facts and taking action

The following email was sent today to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.
To the members of the MIT community,
Today, the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation released the fact-finding report it commissioned to help the Institute understand the origins, nature and extent of Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to MIT and learn from them.
The result of this comprehensive effort is a detailed picture of what happened that can now help inform MIT’s ongoing work to create safeguards to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
An enduring MIT value is the willingness to face hard facts, and as community voices have made clear, this situation demands openness and transparency. In response, the members of the Executive Committee released the fact-finding report in its entirety. I encourage you to read both their statement and the report itself.
The report describes the actions of individuals and uses the names of the central figures – senior academics, administrative leaders and staff. In return for this transparency, I hope and expect that, in the best MIT tradition, we can respond with decency, fairness and understanding.
This moment stands as a sharp reminder of human fallibility and its consequences. However, I believe this day can also mark the start of a new process of shared learning, reflection, repair and rebuilding.
Today’s findings present disturbing new information about Jeffrey Epstein’s connections with individuals at MIT: how extensive those ties were and how long they continued. This includes the decision by a lab director to bring this Level 3 sex offender to campus repeatedly.
That it was possible for Epstein to have so many opportunities to interact with members of our community is distressing and unacceptable; I cannot imagine how painful it must be for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Clearly, we must establish policy guardrails to prevent this from happening again.
Please know that MIT offers extensive resources for survivors, and I encourage you to use any you might find helpful.
The actions of a senior faculty member have raised new concerns. In keeping with MIT practice on faculty discipline, I have asked his department head to consider any appropriate action. In the meantime, in consultation with the provost, dean and department head, I have placed him on leave. Department leadership will reach out to his advisees, students and staff.
The report recounts the conduct not only of senior academics but of administrative leaders they worked with. A central role of the MIT administration is to support the work of our faculty, in part by helping to secure research funding. The findings identify senior administrators who faced repeated requests that Epstein funding be allowed and made judgments about how to accept and manage it. These administrative leaders were weighing their concerns about Epstein as a donor against pressure from a lab director that the funding be approved.
I regret that MIT did not have sufficient policies and processes in place to guide these senior administrators in facing these conflicting pressures. I also wish they had taken to heart the concerns others brought to them and simply put a stop to the Epstein funding, rather than improvising guidelines to allow the gifts under certain constraints.
Knowing these individual administrators, I am certain that they were acting in good faith, striving to advance the work of our faculty. Indeed, all the individuals whose actions created this institutional crisis – both academics and administrators – have in many other ways served our community with immense dedication and distinction. They have all expressed deep regret for these decisions.
A crucial duty now for me and for MIT’s senior leadership team is to reflect on and learn from these misjudgments and to take responsibility for correcting the policy void that enabled them.
Actions
The findings are extensive. It will be important to take time to absorb them and draw out lessons and conclusions. However, with the report now in hand, our community can begin to apply our collective wisdom, skills and energy to the challenges that have crystallized over the past few months. We already know that:
1. We need clear policies and processes to guide decisions about controversial donors.
The Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements and the Ad Hoc Committee to Review MIT Gift Processes can draw on today’s findings as they pursue their charges: to identify values and principles to guide MIT’s outside
engagements, and to improve MIT’s processes around gift acceptance. They will deliver their recommendations in the spring, and I look forward to working with them to turn their conclusions into strong new policies.
In the interim, we have instituted an additional process, overseen by the provost, vice president for research and vice president for finance, to make sure all relevant information is reviewed before any reasonably significant gift is accepted. I have also asked the vice president for resource development and the CEO of the alumni association, who share responsibility for the donor database, to immediately identify and implement steps to strengthen its integrity and factual accuracy.
2. We need to build a culture in which whistleblowing is accepted, effective and safe.
One of the most upsetting aspects of today’s report is that, in addition to the staff whistleblower who shared her experiences publicly in September, other individuals in the Media Lab and central administration warned academic and administrative leaders that
taking Epstein’s donations was misguided – yet their warnings were disregarded.
Whether the subject is the safety of our students, the integrity of our research or risks to the Institute’s reputation, we must do all we can to make sure MIT is a place where serious concerns about serious matters receive serious attention, without risk or fear of retaliation. At my direction, our general counsel is already working to strengthen MIT’s existing whistleblower channels and non-retaliation and confidentiality protections. He is also exploring new ways members of our community might safely and effectively share concerns.
3. We need guidelines to keep our community safe from visitors who pose a direct threat.
On our open campus, members of our community are free to invite guests. However, as the Epstein experience illustrates, this freedom comes with risks. With this letter, I am asking the provost, chancellor, general counsel, faculty officers and our campus police to review the findings pertaining to Epstein’s visits, consult with an inclusive group of other campus leaders and propose guidelines to help prevent similar risks in the future.
4. We need to support the Media Lab community as it makes a fresh start.
These past months have been hard for everyone at MIT but especially for the members of the Media Lab. With leadership from the Media Lab’s new executive committee, faculty and staff in the lab are assessing the future internal governance of the Media Lab as well as its values and culture and will soon launch a search for a new director. As they take on this important challenge, I hope we can all offer them our encouragement and support.
5. We need an Institute-wide community process to address persistent issues in our campus climate and culture.
This past fall, in public and in private, in person and in writing, in anonymous surveys and heartfelt personal pleas, many individuals have described ways that disrespect, harassment, marginalization and abuses of power are harming our community.
Their personal accounts jibe closely with the recommendations of the working groups we convened in response to the landmark National Academies report on sexual and gender harassment.
Building on these and the thoughtful recommendations of past MIT community studies, the chancellor, provost, general counsel, vice president for human resources and other MIT leaders are now designing an inclusive process that will allow our community to articulate the goals we share for our campus climate and culture, and decide how best to achieve them – together.
These longstanding problems demand serious attention and commitment – not only from those who suffer the impact, but from all of us, with our whole hearts. We will share an update early in the spring semester.
* * *
I profoundly regret that decisions that sustained MIT’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein occurred on my watch and created so much pain and turmoil for the people of MIT; I feel a deep responsibility to repair what has been broken. I also offer a heartfelt apology to the survivors of Jeffrey Epstein’s atrocious crimes, as well as to survivors of sexual assault and abuse in our own community.
Equally, I am more grateful than I can say to everyone who has taken action to try to bring MIT back on course, beginning with the many individuals who were aware of the Epstein donations and bravely spoke up to express their personal and professional concerns; you have performed an enduring service for MIT.
On behalf of the whole community, I would also like to convey our appreciation to the fact- finding team and to all the individuals who shared information with them. I offer my respect and gratitude to every member of our community who attended one of the forums this past fall, submitted a comment or raised a concern; I continue to learn from your contributions. And I have enormous admiration for the many staff, postdocs, students, faculty members, alumni and MIT Corporation members who, in various ways throughout this crisis, have offered their wisdom and stepped up to lead.
I also owe an immense debt of gratitude to members of MIT’s current senior team who had no
role in the Epstein funding but who have endured this difficult period with remarkable steadiness, patience and wisdom. Finally, I am deeply grateful to the members of MIT’s Executive Committee for their intense dedication and care for the wellbeing of MIT.
As all of you demonstrated, there is a great deal that is right with MIT. We must fix what needs fixing and improve what needs improving. And we must make room for many more voices and perspectives. But if we can face the Institute’s flaws with honesty and build on its great strengths, we can not only make our community stronger, more equitable, more inclusive and more effective, we can offer a model for deliberate self-assessment, growth and change.
That is a goal worthy of MIT.
Sincerely,
L. Rafael Reif

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