Epstein’s Bard donations spotlight perils of college fundraising

Relationship between disgraced financier and small liberal arts school highlights need for gift-acceptance policies

June 5, 2023
Source: iStock

When Bard College president Leon Botstein first met financier Jeffrey Epstein, Epstein was a convicted and registered sex offender.

That did not stop Professor Botstein from accepting a personal gift of $150,000 (£120,000) from Epstein, which the president then directed to the college as part of his own $1 million gift, The New York Times reported. Epstein’s gift – which Professor Botstein has downplayed – raises questions about how colleges should handle criminal donors and whom presidents should engage with in their fundraising duties.

On the grand scale, Epstein’s total contributions to Bard are relatively small: $75,000 and 66 laptops, as well as the $150,000 Professor Botstein later redirected to the college. But many friends and colleagues of Epstein – who died in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges – have faced harsh scrutiny as details of the ultra-wealthy financier’s heinous actions have emerged in recent years. Now Professor Botstein is the latest associate to defend his ties to Epstein, framing his relationship with the infamous sexual predator as part of the job of being a college president.

‘An ordinary sex offender’

Bard College did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But Professor Botstein has defended taking Epstein’s money in interviews with both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

“People don’t understand what this job is,” Professor Botstein told the Times for a story published in early May, adding, “You cannot pick and choose, because among the very rich is a higher percentage of unpleasant and not very attractive people. Capitalism is a rough system.”

Professor Botstein also made clear in the interview that he was aware of Epstein’s deviant sexual history, which included a 2008 conviction in Florida for soliciting prostitution from someone under 18. In the interview, Professor Botstein called Epstein “an ordinary – if you could say such a thing – sex offender who had been convicted and went to jail”.

But Epstein was also very rich, and after he donated an unsolicited $75,000 to Bard in 2011, it raised hopes on campus for further gifts.

“A guy sent us money, and we followed up,” Professor Botstein told the Times. “It’s a simple story.”

Yet the relationship between Epstein and Bard College invokes complicated questions about how far presidents may be willing to go to raise money needed for institutional survival amid difficult economic headwinds for higher education. How should colleges handle disreputable donors like Epstein who have the ability to make transformative gifts?

Ethics and policy

Professor Botstein was hardly the only college president willing to take Epstein’s money over the years.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also accepted donations in amounts that far surpassed what Epstein contributed to Bard and Professor Botstein himself.

Harvard hauled in $9.1 million from Epstein between 1998 and 2008, according to a 2020 report from the university, which notes that it did not take any more money following his conviction. Harvard also identified 200,000 unspent dollars from Epstein’s gifts at the time, which the university said would be donated to two organisations that support victims of human trafficking and sexual assault.

MIT reported donations of $850,000 from Epstein from 2002 to 2017. An MIT report on Epstein’s donations calls the decision to accept his money post-conviction “the result of collective and significant errors in judgment that resulted in serious damage to the MIT community”. The report also noted that MIT “had no policy or processes for handling controversial donors” at the time. MIT later donated $850,000 to four non-profits supporting survivors of sexual abuse and revised its donor policies, among other actions, according to a statement MIT sent to Inside Higher Ed.

Some outside experts see Bard’s missteps as avoidable.

“Most colleges have a gift-acceptance policy that hopefully guides the higher officials, like a president, that would give them some guidance in terms of who they can accept gifts from and what the considerations are,” said Don Heider, executive director for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, who stressed the need for an established policy.

“The time to think about these things isn’t at the moment or afterwards; the time to think through your policy is beforehand,” Dr Heider said. “Then there’s a sense of clarity and values early on.”

Similarly, Brian Flahaven, vice-president for strategic partnerships at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told Inside Higher Ed that “most institutions do have gift-acceptance policies that govern the types of gifts they will accept along with terms”.

Both the Markkula Center and CASE offer insights for colleges and other organisations that may have ethical questions or concerns about accepting gifts from questionable donors.

CASE’s Principles of Practice state that colleges should only pursue “gifts that fall within, or advance, the institution’s mission and/or approved priorities”. The organisation also emphasises that colleges should know who their donors are and what potential risks they present.

“The benefit of the potential gift should be greater than any risk associated with it. That includes reputational risk, so you have to think through that and do as much due diligence as possible,” Mr Flahaven said.

The Markkula Center encourages potential recipients to identify ethical issues, gather all relevant facts, weigh stakeholder concerns and evaluate possible conflicts with the organisation’s mission and values. The centre also notes that organisations can refuse or return gifts from donors that run afoul of their mission or redirect them to a worthy cause, as Harvard and MIT did. If college leaders choose to keep a controversial gift, they should explain why, according to Markkula Center guidance.

Given Epstein’s death, there is no option for Bard or Professor Botstein to return the money. But Dr Heider suggested that perhaps the best use of the disgraced financier’s funds might be to help support victims of sexual violence.

“One option that might be on the table: find an anti–sex trafficking organisation, a non-profit, and donate the money to some great organisation that is helping women who were trafficked, or women who have been sexually abused and are now recovering,” Dr Heider said.

The perils of fundraising

According to The Wall Street Journal, Professor Botstein met with Epstein more than a dozen times. He defended his engagement with the registered sex offender by noting Bard programmes that provide education to prisoners. He told the newspaper in late April, “We believe in rehabilitation.”

Professor Botstein has also emphasised his role as a fundraiser for the college, a responsibility that is becoming a bigger part of a president’s mandate. But that added responsibility can come with challenges and potential pitfalls that can cost a leader the job.

“In many instances, the president is the chief fundraiser,” Mr Flahaven said.

Earlier this year, Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron stepped down over the fallout of a fundraiser scheduled at a historically discriminatory venue in Florida, which prompted the resignation of the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion dean and the student occupation of an administrative building. The event, which was cancelled amid the controversy, led to her downfall at Conn, where Professor Bergeron had served as president for nearly a decade.

But the fallout for Professor Botstein, who has led Bard since 1975, has not been nearly as severe. He has not faced repercussions on campus from students or faculty members. Protesters at Bard’s graduation last weekend did not criticise Professor Botstein for accepting Epstein’s money; rather, they called for the commencement speaker, Democratic US senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, to oppose plans to build a proposed public safety training centre dubbed “Cop City” outside Atlanta.

Professor Botstein, it seems, has weathered the negative publicity storm. In doing so, he has made sure to point out the depravity of the man who once wrote cheques to Bard and Professor Botstein, telling The New York Times that Epstein was a “monster” and a “truly evil man”.

Even in his role as donor, Epstein could be cruel; Professor Botstein has said the financier strung him along, telling The Wall Street Journal, “I was an unsuccessful fundraiser and actually the object of a little bit of sadism on his part in dangling philanthropic support. That was my relationship with him.”

In the end, Professor Botstein stressed that he never personally benefited. But given the ongoing scrutiny, the donations may end up being more trouble than they were worth.

This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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