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Martin Nowak, the Scapegoat

By Aiyana G. White
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Harvard’s Epstein saga is finally drawing to a close.

Almost two years after the convicted sex offender passed away while awaiting trial, our university has finally levied official sanctions against his favorite campus professor. Martin A. Nowak — whose work spearheading Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics was funded first by Jeffrey E. Epstein, then by his close associates after his 2008 conviction — will be barred from taking on any new advisees or acting as Principal Investigator on any new grants for the next two years. The program itself, which for years offered a personal office and private Harvard phone line to its polemic benefactor, will be shut down. It’s Harvard’s attempt to close shut the chapter of its history in which Epstein is a character.

We find this severe punishment befitting of a severe offense. As Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay articulated when announcing his sanctions, Nowak both broke University policy and committed broader “blameworthy negligence” in his consistently inappropriate dealings with Epstein. The Mathematics and Biology professor hosted Epstein on campus as late as October 2018, several times a year, often accompanied by young women who “acted as his assistants”; Nowak agreed to offer the by-then convicted sex offender an online presence within the Harvard domain after his publicist explained that “it would be very helpful” if Epstein’s name “were attached to a url.” His conduct was reckless, and inexcusable.

Our university has, in sum, made the right decision in disentangling itself from Nowak, even if further tenure-contingent distancing might be hard to ensure. His offenses were clear and indefensible; his punishment — though a sure and regrettable headache for the graduate students and faculty involved with the program he helmed — long overdue. We lose no joy in the face of his departure.

That being said, it would be shortsighted to limit our university’s reckoning to a single, academic scapegoat, even one as rightfully censured as Professor Nowak. Is that all the Epstein fiasco taught us? Did Epstein’s extensive financial links to our institution taint no one but Nowak?

Hardly so. For starters, the University’s response to the Epstein debacle has left a handful of unacknowledged loose ends. An egregious example: Whatever happened to the Harvard faculty who visited Epstein’s private sex trafficking island? According to a brief footnote in the May 2020 University report on the matter, numerous Harvard faculty members visited Epstein’s private residence in the Virgin Islands, which is now under investigation by the territory's attorney general for allegedly hosting an array of illegal activities, including the trafficking of hundreds of women and girls as young as 11 years old.

Yet, barring Nowak, no faculty member has been named (or apparently investigated) for those trips. We would assume that Harvard has followed up on them — we’d hope as much, given the significance of the allegations. How it could potentially not have inquired into the nature of any instructor’s frequenting of Epstein’s child trafficking island is beyond us. But we’re still awaiting answers.

The fact that Epstein played a significant role in indirectly securing University financing post-2008 has gone similarly unaddressed. Even after former University President Drew G. Faust instituted a university-wide ban on donations from the New York mogul, Epstein proved a crucial funding connection for Nowak and others. Through his staff and social network, Epstein helped facilitate almost $10 million in gifts to the University (including direct donations from fellow financier and close associate Leon Black) as well as, notably, a $1.5 million grant from the Templeton Foundation. Disturbingly enough, that much was known and at times encouraged by members of the FAS and Harvard Medical School’s development offices, who were, quote, “so grateful” for the then-known sex-trafficker’s help. According to the University report, an FAS development staffer even asked Nowak to reach out to Epstein to pursue further, indirect funding opportunities in 2017 — almost a decade after we officially severed financial ties.

Epstein’s ability to influence our university even after he was no longer a direct donor — hosting faculty at his controversial private island, securing a campus office and shoutout on the Harvard domain, securing donations for his preferred academics — speaks to the influence money can have even when it’s not directly changing pockets. It proves that our gift policies must be prepared to wrestle with the corrupting influence of immense wealth, and become solid enough to resist affiliates liable to be seduced by a quick, dirty buck.

The disgraced financier’s ties to Harvard should serve as a wake-up call. Perils come with relying on ultra-rich donors. Nowak’s willingness to accommodate Epstein’s publicists’ demands (as well as the administrators’ eagerness to look the other way) demonstrate that large donations are rarely a one-way street, and, unscrutinized, can produce spiraling webs of negative side effects. What graduate student could have imagined that their program would accept money from Epstein, or that they would become academically displaced for it?

The revelation prompts a series of increasingly uncomfortable questions: When they give, what do donors buy from Harvard? How frequently do we help powerful, generous affiliates cleanse their public profile? And who, amidst a mass of morally ambiguous millionaires and billionaires, are we happy to dishonestly honor for the sake of funding?

None of the answers are immediately obvious, let alone financially convenient. But grappling with these questions offers us a more productive path forward than sanctioning a single participant in our collective, disgraceful Epstein affair.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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