Harvard report on Jeffrey Epstein finds missteps, makes recommendations

I wasn’t aware that Harvard was conducting a special inquiry into the disposition of the big-time money it received from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but the Big Three of newspapers, the New York Times, (first screenshot), the Washington Post (second screenshot) and Boston Globe (last screenshot) have just published stories on Harvard’s newly released report.  You can read them by clicking on any screenshot below. You can also read Harvard’s 27-page report here.

As you may recall, Epstein was arrested in 2008 for soliciting a prostitute and procuring an underage girl for prostitution, and served 13 months “very easy time” in jail and then a year of house arrest. He was arrested again in 2019 on much more serious charges of sex trafficking, and (presumably) killed himself in jail on August 10 of last year. I suspect that he would likely have been convicted and spent the rest of his life in jail.

The upshot is that, even after Harvard decided not to take more donations from Epstein, parts of the university treated him not like a rich donor, but like a rich donor who was also an academic, providing him with a keycard and an office. Epstein may also have helped other donors decide which Harvard faculty should get money. I’ll summarize the findings of the report below the three stories. Harvard has made recommendations and have also begun disciplinary investigations concerning an evolutionary biologist we’ve met before.

The summary:

1.) Between 1998 and 2007 (before he served time), Epstein gave Harvard about $9.2 million dollars that was directed to faculty and research programs. Nearly $6.5 million of that was given to establish Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED), headed by evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak.

2.) After Epstein’s conviction in 2008, on the direction of president Drew Faust, Harvard took no more money from Epstein. However, other donors who, according to the Globe, Epstein introduced to Nowak and George Church, gave an additional $9.5 million to these two, with $7.5 million going to Nowak and $2 million to Church. (Those donors deny that Epstein facilitated these latter donations.) These donations were between 2010 and 2015—after Epstein had served his time and was already a registered sex offender.

3.) After his conviction and later release, Epstein continued to visit the PED. He kept an office there and had code and keycard access, often meeting with Harvard professors, with the meetings arranged by Nowak. These visits ended when researchers complained.

Finally, from the Globe report (I quote):

4.) “Nowak approved a 2013 request intended to burnish Epstein’s reputation by Epstein’s publicist to post links links to Epstein’s foundations’ websites on the PED’s Harvard website. Nowak also approved a 2014 request to feature Epstein in a full-page ad on the PED website, the report said. The report said there was no evidence that university leadership knew about the postings. ‘PED removed the Epstein page from its website after PED and Harvard received complaints in 2014 from a sexual assault survivor’s group,’ the report said.”

There are other instances in which Epstein was treated as an academic instead of a donor. He was, for example, given a Visiting Fellow title in Harvard’s psychology department, facilitated by department chair and Professor Stephen Kosslyn. That’s an academic title usually bestowed on researchers, but of course Epstein did no research, even though Harvard renewed his fellowship. Kosslyn, by the way, received $200,000 in donations from Epstein between 1998 and 2002. His position was set up and his donations accepted before Epstein’s conviction.

Two things have now been done. First, Nowak has been placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation of whether he committed professional misconduct. One of the charges (below) involves lying. Nowak was funded not only by Epstein, but also by the John Templeton Foundation, and I wonder if it’s Templeton that Nowak is accused of misleading.

From the NYT:

The report also accused Professor Nowak of falsely informing a grant-making foundation that he had matching funds from one of Mr. Epstein’s foundations, even though he had no such funds.

Claudine Gay, dean of the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said on Friday that she had placed Professor Nowak on paid administrative leave pending a review of whether he had violated policies and standards of professional conduct.

Professor Nowak did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Friday.

And, of course, Harvard is reevaluating its relationship to donors. To be sure, the University itself doesn’t seem culpable, at least if it didn’t know about Epstein’s status at the PED with an office and other privileges. And when Harvard learned of Epstein’s conviction, they no longer took money from him. But other stuff still went on at the PED, and it may be the case that Epstein remained able to direct other people’s money to Nowak and George Church after Harvard declined his dosh.  If anyone is culpable here, it is Nowak, who continued to publicize Epstein and give him facilities, as well as (perhaps) taking more money from other donors prompted to give money by Epstein.

Harvard is now trying to establish clearer procedures for dealing with “controversial gifts”, and, when gifts are rejected because of controversy, to ensure that that decision is “clearly communicated and faithfully executed.”

As for Nowak’s science, I’ve discussed it before: he’s one of the three people who, along with Corina Tarnita and Ed Wilson, attacked the value of kin selection and inclusive fitness in explaining the evolution of “eusociality” (colonies of related individuals with a queen and nonreproductive casts) in insects. (I was one of 130 co-authors of a 2011 letter to Nature criticizing the Tarnita et al. paper.) Nowak has also been one of those who claim that the modern evolutionary synthesis is badly misguided, and that we need a new paradigm. I’ve opposed that, as well (you can see all the relevant posts here), and I’ve criticized Nowak’s blurring of the borders between science and faith (he’s a Catholic).

I’m reporting this not to gloat that a scientific opponent appears to be in trouble, as I’d report this about any major figure in my field. We don’t know what Harvard’s investigation of Nowak will find, and I’ll let this rest until we have an outcome.

21 Comments

  1. Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “After Nowak’s first conviction…”

    Shouldn’t that be Epstein’s first conviction?

  2. Catherine
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I think you mean Epstein instead of Nowak: in
    2.) After Nowak’s first conviction in 2008,and 4)There are other instances in which Nowak was treated as an academic instead of a donor.

    • Catherine
      Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      BTW thank you for continuing to write during all of this. I can’t wait for the ducklings to hatch.

    • Posted May 3, 2020 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve fixed all the errors, thanks. I was distracted (ducks!)

      • JezGrove
        Posted May 3, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        So I saw – that duckling ramp looked like it was a struggle to put in place. (For a nasty moment I thought it was your phone that had fallen into the pond, but whatever it was floated and you rescued it, so I presume it was something else.)

  3. Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    “There are other instances in which Nowak was treated as an academic…”

    Again Epstein, not Nowak. Nowak is a bit sleazy, but he’s no Epstein. 🙃

  4. Catherine
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    BTW thank you for continuing to write during all of this. I can’t wait for the ducklings to hatch.

  5. Achrachno
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    “Nowak’s first conviction”

    Epstein I think?

    • Achrachno
      Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Well, that comment became superfluous even before I could spit it out.

  6. Posted May 3, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I am glad to see no mention of Steven Pinker, who just had the misfortune of being photographed at the same lunch table as Epstein.

  7. BobTerrace
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Harvard needs to keep up its reputation and will come down hard if they find improprieties.

  8. enl
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    When the emails came around friday (from Prex Bacow) with the attachment from General Council Lopez, I found it interesting reading. The full report is also interesting.

    In my opinion, neither really addresses the root of the problem, which is that academic guidelines were bypassed and no followup was done, because of the size of the check.

    After his first conviction, money was no longer accepted, but there was little attempt to address the issue otherwise, and someone that was demonstrably a potential danger to the community of, and the reputation of, Harvard was still pandered to because he still brought in money, though he didn’t sign the checks. There was opportunity to address this in 2013, but, though direct money was refused, none of the big issues were addressed.

    Harvard is far from the only institution with this type of problem (athletics is the most common gravitational singularity, but certainly not the only one), but, right now, are a showcase for how not to deal with it.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    So, just as diplomas open doors, so does money. It works nearly every time.

  10. rickflick
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Why, do you think, did Epstein want an office and access to this academic community. If he’s not doing research, why set himself up as if he was? The only thing I can think of is to appear to be an important person to facilitate other nefarious activities. But, just where would being a fake Harvard biologist come in handy?

    • darrelle
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      I’m also curious about his motives. I think it may have been merely a vanity project. I way to increase his prestige in his own eyes. He had a reputation of hanging out with academics of all sorts. Could have been more to it as you suggest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were noting more than a way for Epstein to stroke his own ego.

      And why Nowak? Was it just that he was someone amenable to being schmoozed by Epstein? Or was Nowak chosen by Epstein with something more nefarious in mind? But what? A propaganda effort to discredit mainstream science? There has certainly been plenty of that from various people and groups.

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Other important donors to Harvard include members of the royal family of Saudi Arabia,
    one of whom, Prince Alwaleed, endowed a Chair and several staff professorships. There was a little concern about these gifts a year or two ago, after a Saudi dissident met with accidents (apparently accidental garroting and accidental dismemberment) at the hands of agents of the Saudi monarchy inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

  12. Posted May 3, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    There is a Latin saying Pecunia non olet, but stuff like this says it does.

  13. Posted May 3, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Might this not just be an example of Nowak’s belief that “good guys finish first”? (Obviously, he being the “good guy”.)

  14. Joe Dickinson
    Posted May 3, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m having trouble understanding why accepting money from a bad person is always bad. Accepting money need not imply endorsement of that person’s ideology or behavior. If in doubt, issue a statement to this effect “I abhor this person’s ideology/behavior but I will seek retribution by using his money for causes diametrically opposed to those beliefs”.

    • Posted May 3, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      It’s worth considering. But I come down on saying that it is more a bad thing to accept it than it is a good thing. The donor is trying to burnish their reputation, and by refusing the donation & rebuking the person who offers it is a way to punish the donor a little. It means ‘you are an *sshole and we don’t like you’.
      Also by being a recipient, ones’ own reputation is tarnished since that creates the appearance of either endorsing or not caring about what the *sshole did. I’m sure Harvard cares about the bad things that Epstein did, but by accepting his largess it creates the appearance that they either endorse it or don’t care about it. Other potential donors might be offended and choose to direct their money elsewhere, for one thing.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 4, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Both Nowak and Church dealings with Epstein is in respective Wikipedia article.

    he’s a Catholic

    I note that there is a correlation here.

    “As head of the Catholic church, Pope Benedict is the boss of every Catholic priest in the world, he’s effectively king of the pedos.”

    – Jimmy Carr [ https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jimmy_Carr ]


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