This is only apparently a sex scandal


From the cover page of the report

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?

2 thoughts on “This is only apparently a sex scandal

  1. Loïc Merel

    Michael, I recall having read an essay of yours on the Sokal affair and its continuation by Sokal-Bricmont. You did not find the question of the fraudulence of Lacan, Kristeva et al as pertinent as the following one. Why did they feel compelled to appeal to hard science in their discourse?
    Similar question with Epstein, who was not just a distant benefactor, but desired to have a seat at the table in the academic world.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Loïc, Thank you for bringing this up. That was indeed the question that interested me at the time, and 20 years later I still have not seen a satisfactory explanation. In the same way, I don’t understand why Badiou finds it helpful to base his philosophical system on inaccessible cardinals; but even more, I don’t understand why his followers in comparative literature departments in the US feel they can simply ignore this aspect of his writing. I have actually spoken to otherwise coherent people and not understood their answers.
      I wouldn’t presume to speculate on Epstein’s personal motivations, but I would like to know to what extent his active presence in academic affairs helped to rehabilitate him socially, if only temporarily, after his conviction. The participation by mathematicians in this rehabilitation is an extreme example of the phenomenon, to which I have wanted to draw attention, of extreme deference on the part of our community to Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals.



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