The news that several departments at Harvard, including the mathematics department, maintained connections with Jeffrey Epstein for many years after his conviction in 2008 “on charges related to soliciting minors for prostitution” has provided an opportunity for expressions of Schadenfreude on the part of several of my French colleagues. Last September, after Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow described Epstein’s actions as “utterly abhorrent . . . repulsive and reprehensible,” Harvard undertook a systematic review of Epstein’s donations to Harvard. The report on that review can now be consulted online.
Attentive readers will have understood that the true scandal is not that one particular philanthropist turned out to be repulsive and reprehensible. Dig into the backgrounds of the founders and funders of our most cherished institutions of higher learning and you will see that reprehensible actions are a frequent feature of their biographies. Nor is it that the sexual exploitation of minors is one of the reddest of red lines, and that few of even our most intrepid colleagues would want to be caught red-handed on its wrong side. What is really scandalous about the new story is that it is just the latest version of the old story, that the pursuit of the values of our profession, the internal goods in the language MWA borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, remains dependent on the continuous supply of external goods from benefactors who, practically without exception, have all crossed red or reddish lines in order to attain the status of Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals that allows them to play the role of benefactors in the first place.
Reddish lines have been shading redder in recent years. Institutions have been cutting their ties with the intermediaries who brought them the embarrassing associations with Epstein; they have de-Sacklerized at an accelerating rate from one month to the next. The to which I alluded in an earlier post —
One veteran colleague likens mathematical research to a kidney; no matter where it gets its funding, the output is always pure and sweet, and any impurities are buried in the paperwork. Our cultural institutions have long since grown accustomed to this excretory function, and that includes our great universities.
— is growing increasingly unacceptable to mathematicians, as it is in the wider culture. Can our profession every hope to be free of association with scandal?
Update: you really should read the Vox article about the MIT Media Lab, specifically these two segments:
The argument that anonymous donations from bad people are good, explained
Who would you rather have $5 million: Jeffrey Epstein, or a scientist who wants to use it for research? Presumably the scientist, right?
“Everyone seems to treat it as if the anonymity and secrecy around Epstein’s gift are a measure of some kind of moral failing,” Lessig writes. “I see it as exactly the opposite. … Secrecy is the only saving virtue of accepting money like this.”
This from the former director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. After 5000 years of ethical reflection, is this the best we can do?