The late Jeffrey Epstein was a college dropout with a spotty educational history who remade himself as a habitué of Ivy League schools, with a particularly close connection to Harvard. This was not the biggest deception in Epstein’s squalid life, but his closeness to the most prestigious precincts of academia offers an important window into the workings of the American elite.
Epstein attended Cooper Union from 1969 to 1971 before switching to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. He left Courant in 1974 without a degree. Later, he taught math at the Dalton School, where he was fired in 1976 for “poor performance.” Epstein was able to leap over the hurdle of this singularly unpromising background once he made a fortune as a hedge fund manager in the 1980s.
By the late 1990s, Epstein had gone from being an unpromising student to a sought-after philanthropist whose sizable and open purse made him welcome at the commanding heights of American higher education. Between 1998 and 2007, Epstein donated a total of $9,179,000 to Harvard, much of it going to the establishment of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (which carried the regrettable acronym “PED”), run by professor Martin Nowak. Epstein was treated by Harvard as not just a generous benefactor but someone who merited inclusion in the community of ideas. Epstein was made a visiting fellow in Harvard’s Department of Psychology in 2005, despite the fact that, as an internal report later noted, he “lacked the academic qualifications Visiting Fellows typically possessed.” Epstein was readmitted as a fellow in 2006, but was asked to withdraw his application after he was arrested that year for soliciting minors for prostitution.
Epstein’s arrest and subsequent conviction in 2008 complicated—but certainly did not end—his relationship with Harvard. In response to Epstein’s conviction, Harvard President Drew G. Faust issued an injunction against the university’s taking money from him. But this directive contained a massive loophole. While Epstein couldn’t give money to the university itself, there was nothing to prevent Epstein from giving money to individual research programs carried out by Harvard scholars. In fact, Epstein continued to fund PED, helping the program pay for its office space in Harvard Square. Between 2008 and 2017, Epstein enjoyed a key card to the PED office and a key to a room known as “Jeffrey’s office.” From 2008 to 2017, Epstein frequently used his PED office as a convenient operating base when he met with friends at Harvard. Even after losing access to the office in 2017, he continued to make visits to the university until 2018.
Epstein became radioactive for a second time in November 2018, after the publication of a blockbuster report by Julie Brown of the Miami Herald documenting his horrific crimes and making the case that he had received a sweetheart deal in his 2008 conviction. This reporting led directly to Epstein’s rearrest, with his legal jeopardy ending only after his apparent suicide in prison in 2019.
In September 12, 2019, shortly after Epstein’s demise, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow expressed “regret” at Harvard’s “past association” with Epstein and promised an internal investigation. A report on the matter was released in May 2020. Writing in The Harvard Crimson in April 2021, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig argued that this report was a whitewash that made a “scapegoat” of Martin Nowak while refusing to confront the fact that university leaders had been aware that Epstein was able to easily circumvent the rule against Harvard’s taking his money. Nowak was put on administrative leave in 2020, and PED was closed the following year. Lessig was unequivocal:
We are a university that openly and eagerly engaged with a child sex predator, not just before he was convicted, but long after. How did our culture allow this to happen? And how can we now allow this failure to be obscured by scapegoating just one?
Lessig’s critique of the 2020 report and Harvard’s avoidance of responsibility has been vindicated by a recent Wall Street Journal exposé about Epstein’s social network. The 2020 report made only glancing reference in a footnote to the fact that in 2016 Harvard English professor Elisa New received $110,000 from Epstein for her Verse Video Education nonprofit, which produced poetry education videos. It insisted that the donation was not “a gift to Harvard” and thus fell outside the purview of its investigation.
What the report failed to mention is that Elisa New is married to Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary—and former Harvard president. Summers is also a longtime Epstein crony. In April 2014, Summers wrote to Epstein, “I need small scale philanthropy advice. My life will be better if i [sic] raise $1m for Lisa.” Epstein suggested they meet up in Cambridge, and the two eventually settled on a restaurant in Brookline, leading to the $110,000 check.
It’s easy enough to guess why Harvard bigwigs like Summers hugged Epstein so tightly. The modern neoliberal university is a shark that must constantly consume donations in order to stay alive. Harvard is one of the biggest sharks in the ocean, with an endowment of more than $50 billion—the largest academic hoard of wealth in the world. You don’t get to be as wealthy as Harvard if you are overly scrupulous about whom you take money from.
While Epstein is at the extreme edge of toxic philanthropists, there are many lesser miscreants who also use Harvard’s famous name to launder their reputation. Harvard recently took a $300 million gift from Hedge Fund CEO Kenneth Griffin, whose other donations have also funded Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor leading a major assault on academic freedom in both public schools and colleges. In the Griffin case, as in that of Epstein, Harvard is in effect deeming the common good less important than the enrichment of Harvard’s coffers.
What is perhaps worth exploring is why Epstein was so drawn to Harvard, as well as to other universities like MIT. In a December 2021 interview with Joe Rogan, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recalled, “I had the tremendous misfortune of knowing Jeffrey Epstein because I knew so many people at Harvard, at MIT, at Arizona State” who were close to the sex predator. Pinker added that Epstein
got really in tight with scientists. He wasn’t a smart as many of his pals made him out to be, but he wasn’t stupid. There are a lot of hedge fund guys who had an interest in science and who like to indulge in it by hanging out with smart people. He was collecting scientific celebrities. He liked to kibitz and schmooze about these ideas.
This account of Epstein as a collector of “scientific celebrities” jibes with what we know about him and explains his eagerness to socialize with world-famous thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Hawking.
By Pinker’s account, Epstein’s mania for celebrity intellectuals was all too banal, a trait many ultra-wealthy hedge fund managers shared—although not necessarily his predatory behavior. But if hedge fund managers are attracted to the science stars of Harvard and other elite schools, it’s not just out of their disinterested love of physics or biology. Rather, among the plutocratic elite, science has become an ideology: a technocratic scientism that exalts elite universities as embodiments of meritocracy. Because these schools are seen as the place where the best rise to the top, association with the Ivy League helps give finance capitalism a patina of legitimacy.
Epstein in particular had a strong affinity for evolutionary psychology—a speculative field that often seems to boil down to a defense of existing social hierarchies as embodiments of nature.
Pinker’s own work, imbued with a Panglossian vision of progress, has a similar tendency to uphold the status quo, as historian David Bell, reviewing his 2018 book Enlightenment Now for The Nation, explained:
Given Pinker’s scorn for intellectuals and disregard of social movements, it is no surprise that his politics, and his hopes for the future, can best be summed up as technocratic neoliberalism. He puts his trust in free markets and the guidance of enlightened scientists and moguls (is it really a surprise that Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now “my new favorite book of all time”?). Let the rich get very, very rich, as long as everyone else’s income is rising, and don’t worry about the power they may be accumulating in the process.
It’s not surprising that someone like Epstein—interested in legitimizing their place on the top of the global food chain—would seek out Pinker’s company.
If you leave aside his crimes, Jeffrey Epstein was an utterly conventional wealthy man who fit in perfectly with the pillars of respectable thought—and even, in the case of Noam Chomsky, with a pillar of only semi-respectable (an outlaw on politics, a lion of linguistics) thought—ensconced in the most prestigious schools. It’s telling that when Epstein wanted to get a representative of the Palestinian point of view to talk to his friend Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel, Epstein turned to the renowned Chomsky rather than more lowly figures involved with day-to-day activism—let alone actual Palestinians. (It’s worth recalling that former labor secretary Alexander Acosta, who as US Attorney in Miami had arranged the sweetheart deal for Epstein in 2007, once said, “I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone.”) Epstein believed that he lived in the best of all possible worlds because people of merit like himself rose to the top. At Harvard and other top schools, he found all too many people who were willing to flatter this absurd exaltation of existing inequality. The truly distressing fact is they did so not just because he signed large checks but also because this is what they sincerely believe.