When I was a staff writer at a university alumni magazine, my goal was always the same: find the most interesting graduates with the most compelling stories. So as I pitched a story about the CEO of a company garnering national attention for its innovative work, I wasn’t expecting this response:
“[Expletive] him. He never gives us any money.”
That came from a woman in alumni relations who had other ideas about the magazine’s purpose: ego-boosting, suitable-for-framing, 2,000-word profiles designed to coax open the fat wallets of current and future donors.
I dubbed this “C.R.E.A.M.” syndrome, a play on the hip-hop classic by the Wu-Tang Clan, an acronym for “Cash rules everything around me.”
That should be MIT’s school song.
Muck, all of it self-inflicted, continues to rise at the esteemed university. After a scorching Ronan Farrow investigation in The New Yorker last week about the deep ties between convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the school’s Media Lab, its longtime director, Joi Ito, resigned. Now the Globe has revealed that top MIT fund-raising and finance officers knew about Epstein’s extensive connections to the Media Lab, and sought to keep those links hidden.
Epstein, who once palled around with President Trump (before Trump moved into the White House), former President Clinton, and British royal Prince Andrew, also acted as an intermediary for MIT to land big donations from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Leon Black, founder of one of the world’s largest private equity firms.
MIT facilitated Epstein, convicted in 2008 of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution, in cleaning up his sullied reputation. They helped refashion a convicted pedophile and registered sex offender into a philanthropist.
They knew it was wrong — that’s why school officials worked so hard to conceal it — but were unwilling to part with Epstein, who gladly served as the Media Lab’s ATM. For his cynical purposes, it was money well spent.
As Wu-Tang’s Method Man intoned, “CREAM, get the money/Dollar, dollar bill, y’all.”
Of course, MIT’s behavior isn’t an outlier. Donations are the mother’s milk of higher education. More money means better facilities, programs, and the hiring of superstar professors. It means buckets of cash for researchers, and the prestige that keeps students clamoring for admission.
But it shouldn’t come at the impossibly high cost of allowing a sex offender to rebrand himself as an academic mensch.
For decades, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) had few benefactors as generous as Bill Cosby. His $20 million donation to Atlanta’s Spelman College in 1988 remains the largest ever to an HBCU. Now, it’s possible that not everyone at those schools knew that Cosby was a serial predator who allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted more than 50 women. (Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018 in Pennsylvania.) Yet the rumors were at least well known enough that it became a dark punch line on the NBC comedy “30 Rock.”
Only as Cosby’s public persona descended from “America’s Dad” to accused, then convicted, rapist did anyone consider how those donations burnished his image and compelled people who should have known better to look the other way.
The university I worked for wasn’t getting eight-figure checks. But there were still many machinations to keep those donations rolling in. There was the deep-pocketed graduate allowed to edit his own profile. There was the guy the university was trying to woo as a trustee using, in part, a glowing feature as bait. As I talked to friends at other colleges big and small, I learned this was how that world worked. Most people simply accepted it, like spiraling tuition and underpaid adjuncts, as an unfortunate fact,
With the lengthening shadow of MIT’s troubles, more heads likely will roll. And they should. Yet it won’t make a dent in a larger, insidious culture that corrupts higher education and allows its officials to willfully ignore all that dirt beneath all that cash.