Students, alumni and staff gathered at MIT on Friday afternoon to express their fury at the institute's financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a New York jail cell last month after he was charged with trafficking minors for sex.
Outside the Stratton Student Center on Massachusetts Avenue, speakers called for the resignation of MIT President L. Rafael Reif and of all officials who knew about Epstein's gifts to the school. Several times throughout the three-hour event, the crowd of more than 100 students and staff broke out to chant in unison, "They knew!" — in reference to school administrators.
On Thursday, Reif disclosed that shortly after becoming MIT president in 2012, he signed a note thanking Epstein for a contribution — though, he said, "I do not recall it." Reif also said that he was present during at least one meeting at which the gifts were discussed.
Those were among the preliminary findings from an independent review of the gifts that Reif initiated last Saturday. Reif and Joi Ito -- the head of the school's Media Lab who resigned last weekend — have repeatedly apologized for the ties.
Student activists who organized the rally had an agenda that reached beyond Epstein.
Multiple speakers raised MIT's long histories with the American military and to defense contractors, as well as its more recent relationships with moguls like the late David Koch (an alumnus) and private-equity billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman.
MIT renamed its college of computing after Schwarzman — who has close ties to President Trump and to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — after he made a $350 million gift last year.
Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at the institute since 1998, said that sort of relationship has been a persistent feature in MIT's history.
In the mid-20th century, Haslanger said, the institute “was known as the spinal cord of the military-industrial complex.” Now, she said, its dependency on firms involved in war, surveillance and mass incarceration is “reemerging.”
“Some of us are just really sick of it,” she said.
Activists also called for several members of MIT's faculty to resign, including physicist Seth Lloyd — who admitted last month to visiting Epstein in prison after he pleaded guilty to soliciting girls for sex.
The rally's organizers read further demands, including the disclosure of any remaining information about the Epstein gifts to MIT and the establishment of a board comprised of faculty, staff and students with final oversight over the approval of large gifts.
One of those organizers, graduate student Husayn Karimi, said he doesn't believe the argument — espoused by professor Robert Langer, among others — that MIT tends to transmute money, even from compromised sources, into an unquestioned force for good.
Karimi said donors like Epstein or Koch give money in the spirit of an “exchange” — one that can reshape MIT’s research priorities in ways “completely antithetical to [our] values.” Karimi and others marched to Reif's office, where the rally ended with chants and pledges to return until he resigns.
MIT officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Students and faculty from other campuses, including Tufts University and Boston University, were on hand in solidarity.
Nathan Foster, a recent Tufts graduate, said his school's prominent ties to the Sackler family — who made billions off of the production of opioids — proved that this is a problem with national scope.
“It’s the same issue. It really has to do with a decline in public support for universities, and universities trying to become bigger and more prestigious,” Foster said. "They rely on people like Epstein and the Sacklers to fund themselves. It's absolutely the same issue."
Meanwhile, after a period of relative silence, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow announced Thursday that that university will review the nearly $9 million in gifts given to the school by Epstein.