When students are selected for the Dubin Graduate Fellowship for Emerging Leaders at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, they make a commitment to effect positive change on the world.
Endowed by billionaire donor Glenn R. Dubin in 2010, the fellowship offers financial scholarships and a co-curricular program to a handful of students each year who have shown “strong character, academic excellence,” and “the ability to thrive and lead in the face of adversity,” according to the fellowship’s website.
This year’s incoming and outgoing classes of Dubin fellows expected to focus their efforts on academics and extracurriculars, working to fulfill that mission. Instead, some found themselves investing outsized energy into a campaign to sever their fellowship’s ties to its benefactor, who maintained a decades-long rapport with the deceased financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein.
“None of us expected to have a year filled with scandal and a year filled with this level of internal organizing,” Dubin fellow and Master in Public Policy candidate Rebecca M. Mer said. “We’re just a few of many, many students who are incredibly concerned and upset about HKS's ties to donors who are closely tied to Epstein.”
Dubin is not the only donor to the Center who had a relationship with Epstein. Billionaire Leslie H. Wexner, who also endows a fellowship at the center, engaged Epstein as a financial advisor beginning in the late 1980s.
Roughly a dozen Kennedy School students — including four current Dubin fellows — denounced the Kennedy School’s support for donors who had relationships with Epstein in interviews with The Crimson. Many also criticized the Kennedy School for not acknowledging those ties or for inadequately addressing students’ concerns.
Students who receive funding from the donors said Harvard has put them in a thorny situation: They now weigh the value of a Harvard education — which some would not have access to if not for donors’ financial support — against their moral opposition to the individuals who provide that funding.
Several Dubin fellows characterized the situation as ironic. Alluding to the Kennedy School’s description of their fellowship, the fellows said Harvard selected them due to their ability to show leadership when faced with difficult circumstances. But this past year, as students mobilized around ethical concerns about their school’s indirect ties to Epstein, they said they believe Harvard itself failed to demonstrate that quality.
After new information about Epstein’s activities began to surface with his July 2019 arrest, reports of Harvard donors’ ties to Epstein sparked a tumultuous year at the Center for Public Leadership.
After Epstein was convicted of procuring sex with a minor in Florida state court in 2008, he and Dubin continued to maintain friendly ties.
In 2010, Dubin donated $5 million to the Kennedy School to establish his eponymous fellowship at the Center for Public Leadership.
Wexner and his wife, Abigail S. Wexner, meanwhile, are the founding benefactors of the Center. In addition to financially backing the Center’s Wexner Israel Fellowship, Wexner donated more than $42 million to the Kennedy School prior to 2012; one building at the Kennedy School is named for him. Since then, he too has come under scrutiny for his ties to Epstein.
Epstein served as Wexner’s financial advisor, facilitating a donation that funded the construction of Harvard Hillel. Wexner was one of Epstein’s only known clients.
Wexner has maintained that he cut ties with Epstein following the latter’s 2007 arrest. Thomas Davies, a spokesperson for Wexner, wrote as much in an emailed statement to The Crimson.
“Mr. Wexner has condemned Jeffrey Epstein’s abhorrent behavior in the strongest possible terms and severed all ties with him more than a decade ago,” he wrote.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported Wexner failed to address inappropriate conduct and a culture of misogyny inside L. Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. Following the reports, Wexner stepped down as chairman and chief operating officer nearly six decades after he started the retail company.
Kennedy School students said in interviews they were frustrated to learn about donor controversies through the media while their school’s administration remained largely silent on the issue.
Though both Wexner and Dubin have denounced Epstein, students continue to protest those donors’ relationships to Harvard.
Throughout the past academic year, Dubin fellows entered into private conversations with senior administrators at the Kennedy School and Center to discuss their concerns regarding donor relations, according to four fellows.
Dubin fellow and Master of Public Policy candidate Katherine Miller characterized those conversations as “frustrating.” She said she was not at liberty to disclose details of the meetings due to administrators’ requests that they be kept confidential.
The Center and the Kennedy School have not publicly acknowledged their donors’ ties to Epstein or students’ concerns.
Kennedy School spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in an emailed statement that Wexner and Dubin’s financial contributions have benefited the Kennedy School. He also noted that Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf and Center for Public Leadership Director Wendy R. Sherman have participated in discussions with Kennedy School affiliates, including students, about the donations.
“Their donations have enabled Harvard Kennedy School to provide hundreds of student scholarships, hire additional faculty, and transform the physical campus for 21st century learning,” Smith wrote. “This support has significantly advanced our mission of educating future generations of principled and effective public leaders.”
Though the Kennedy School continues to argue in favor of the gifts’ utility, students have questioned the status of the school’s current relationships with their donors in light of recent events.
In February, Harvard removed Dubin and Wexner’s names from a University website listing the members of the Center’s advisory council. Wexner co-chaired the advisory council with his wife, whose name has also been removed. Dubin’s name was also scratched from the Kennedy School’s Dean Executive Board.
At the time, Kennedy School students said they were unsure what the disappearance of the donors’ names from the boards meant about Harvard’s relationship to them. A Kennedy School spokesperson told The Crimson in March that Dubin and Wexner’s departures were routine.
Around the same time, the Center sent an email to fellowship applicants encouraging them to vet the donors who fund their prospective programs.
Several Dubin fellows also said this academic year marked the first time Dubin did not arrange an in-person meeting with the students enrolled in his fellowship. They added that they believe the Epstein controversy precipitated the change.
Still, Dubin spokesperson Davidson Goldin wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that the Dubins remain committed to the fellowship.
“The Dubin Graduate Fellowship for Emerging Leaders was established over a decade ago and remains an important focus of the Dubins’ philanthropy,” he wrote.
Current fellows said they understand that the fellowship’s funding may dry up within the next two years. A spokesperson for Dubin did not respond to a question asking whether Dubin will provide another donation to continue the fellowship when it runs out of money.
Several Dubin fellows said revelations about their donor’s relationship with Epstein have had a negative impact on them personally. They also criticized the Kennedy School for not being forthcoming about their donors’ ties to Epstein.
Dubin fellow and Master in Public Policy candidate Mike Yepes said that, as a survivor of sexual assault, Harvard’s relationships to donors with Epstein ties have created “a very difficult dilemma internally” for him.
“What's been very difficult for me is navigating this dichotomy of being a survivor myself and then having the benefit of a full ride, but a full ride given to me by someone who — regardless of whether or not we know what happened with Dubin specifically — has had a relationship with Epstein, who is a convicted sex offender,” Yepes said.
Yepes added that the onus should be on Harvard — not him or any other individual student — to vet donors.
“The responsibility to find donors who can support those students, one of whom I am, is Harvard’s and not mine as an individual,” he said. “It is their responsibility to routinely vet donors and seek out new donors when questionable situations arise.”
Dubin’s relationship with Epstein has led some Dubin fellows to conceal their fellowship’s connection with its benefactor.
Dubin fellow and Master in Public Policy candidate Joshua Baltodano said he has updated his LinkedIn profile to omit mention of Dubin from the fellowship title.
“I definitely don't tell people I'm a Dubin fellow anymore,” he said.
“It is disappointing to be referred to as a Dubin emerging leader fellow, because my emerging leadership didn't come from supporting partnerships with sex offenders,” Yepes said. “It came from being a survivor who has fought for justice.”
Miller said she believes the Kennedy School failed to show leadership from the time media reports surfaced of Dubin’s ties to Epstein.
“We found out not through the Center for Public Leadership not through Glenn Dubin but through watching the news just like everyone else,” Miller said. “I think that that has mirrored largely how the administration — foreshadowed how the administration was going to see and handle this issue in that they have not really been proactive in identifying this as a problem or an issue that's very salient to us and merits our involvement.”
At the center of student outcry against ties to Wexner and Dubin has been uncertainty regarding what vetting process, if any, Harvard conducts of its donors.
Until recently, the University’s guidelines for prospective donors were shrouded in secrecy. But a recent report released on May 1 shed new light on the University’s ties to Epstein and its gift policies — and has prompted Harvard to develop more stringent guidelines.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow requested a review of Epstein’s donations in September 2019, after a partial financial review revealed he had made significant donations to Harvard. Led by Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel and the outside law firm Foley Hoag, the full review found Epstein donated around $9.1 million between 1998 and 2008, and that Harvard did not take any gifts from Epstein following his 2008 conviction.
The report also furnished a set of recommendations the University will act upon “immediately,” according to Bacow. One of those recommendations states that its Gift Policy Committee — a group of faculty and administrators tasked with reviewing prospective donations — should create a comprehensive, University-wide process for vetting donors and share it with faculty and staff.
That process, the report recommends, would include identifying “triggering criteria” to avoid certain gifts and donors.
“The criteria might include the gift’s size, a donor’s lack of prior connection to Harvard, any known concerns about a prospective donor’s actions, including criminal record, and any negative information found in the news media,” the report reads.
Neither Dubin nor Wexner are mentioned in the report, which focused on Epstein’s direct donations to Harvard. Though the review also examined gifts Epstein “directed” and “facilitated,” the final report did not detail every gift made to the University in which donors may have had an association to Epstein.
Several Kennedy School students said they hope to see more student involvement in the drafting of donor guidelines.
“I think we would love to see greater student involvement in the [Gift] Policy Committee and the creation of a robust gifts policy,” Mer, one of the Dubin fellows, said. “I see that is coming out of this report, but I do not see any mechanism for student involvement in that process.”
Miller also said she believes students should have a voice in University decisions regarding donor guidelines. She said students would bring an important moral perspective to those discussions, whereas administrators might prioritize the financial prosperity of their programs.
“I think that students can really bring a moral standard to it,” she said. “We're the Dubin fellows — you know, that is part of our lives forever. We are forever to a degree separated from Jeffrey Epstein.”
“I think just having that seat at the table when it comes to making these decisions can go a long way,” she added.
Ultimately, Miller said she would like to see Harvard more fully confront its relationship to those tied to Epstein — and to Epstein himself.
“Epstein uses Harvard ties to basically absolve himself of the crime that he had committed and ingratiate himself back into society,” she said. “That was his play, and he used Harvard to do it.”
She argued that, through the Dubin fellowship, that play still may be happening.
“Harvard needs to reckon the extent to which it was used — we were used — to better the reputation of Jeffrey Epstein,” she added.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.
—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.