It may seem, at first blush, an unlikely connection: Leon Botstein, the president of Bard, one of the country’s most progressive colleges, and Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced billionaire accused of sexually abusing teenage girls.
But reporting from The Wall Street Journal this week showed that Dr. Botstein did not just pursue Mr. Epstein hoping to raise money, he did so repeatedly. He made frequent visits to Mr. Epstein’s Upper East Side townhouse, and Mr. Epstein and his entourage hopped by helicopter to Bard’s lush campus in the Hudson Valley.
Dr. Botstein said in interviews with The New York Times that the visits were all about funding for Bard — for the school’s commitment to social justice, its prisoner education program, its liberal arts mission. Bard calls itself “a private college for the public good.”
“People don’t understand what this job is,” he said, 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.”
In defending his pursuit of Mr. Epstein and candidly describing the burden of raising money, Dr. Botstein gave insight into how the need to attract dollars can appear to run headlong into an academic institution’s stated values.
Mr. Epstein gave prolifically to many charities and universities, including Harvard and M.I.T., and the Wall Street Journal report showed that his network of contacts was wider than had been thought, including prominent figures like the linguist Noam Chomsky and Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and president of Harvard. Dr. Summers sought money for a poetry foundation, led by his wife, Elisa New, a Harvard literature professor. Mr. Summers declined to comment.
“Would we accept money from Jeffrey Epstein today? No,” Dr. Botstein said, describing the former donor as a “monster” and “truly evil man.” “We had no idea, the public record had no indication, that he was anything more than an ordinary — if you could say such a thing — sex offender who had been convicted and went to jail.”
Mr. Epstein had been very publicly accused of sexually abusing girls as young as 14. However, he had minimized his legal exposure with high-powered lawyers, settlements that silenced complaints, and a plea deal that short-circuited an F.B.I. investigation.
Bard College, about 100 miles north of New York City, was having a difficult time after the 2008 financial crisis. By 2016, a financial ratings agency had downgraded Bard’s economic outlook, partly because the college had little cash.
After Mr. Epstein gave Bard an unsolicited $75,000 gift in 2011, Dr. Botstein said that he hoped for more donations. The Times had previously reported the gift.
“A guy sent us money, and we followed up,” he said. “It’s a simple story.”
Over the next four or so years, The Wall Street Journal reported, there were two dozen or so visits scheduled with Mr. Epstein, mostly at the financier’s Manhattan townhouse. Mr. Epstein visited Bard to attend an opera in 2013 and a concert in 2016, planning to bring his young female assistants and arrive by helicopter, according to the newspaper.
In an interview, Dr. Botstein said he never witnessed young female assistants around Mr. Epstein, that he was not present when Mr. Epstein’s helicopter arrived, and that he did not remember whether he had met Mr. Epstein during those visits, which he said occurred during the summer when classes were not in session.
Dr. Botstein said that it was his duty to raise money for the liberal arts institution he leads, in a time when the country is not adequately funding higher education. Bard has a small alumni base, he said, so a large part of his job is persuading wealthy people who are not affiliated with the institution to give money.
“That is a humiliating experience to go back over and over and over,” Dr. Botstein said, adding, “We’re completely at the mercy of the very wealthy.”
At first, developing a relationship with Mr. Epstein did not seem far afield for Bard, according to Dr. Botstein. Bard has a program for convicted felons, and Dr. Botstein said that the campus believes in second chances.
“That’s part of our educational mission,” he said. “You wouldn’t criticize a priest for giving communion to a convicted felon.”
College presidents must often mingle with unsavory characters to raise money, said Stephen Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University. During his tenure, Mr. Trachtenberg said, he considered accepting donations from Scientologists and from the Libyan strongman, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, but ultimately rejected them.
In an interview, Mr. Trachtenberg, now 85, said he never regretted his decision regarding Gaddafi, but still wonders whether he made the right call with the Scientologists, who he said wanted the university to confer an honorary degree on their founder, L. Ron Hubbard, a George Washington alumnus.
“I could have put 10 students through college for that kind of money,” he said of the offered sum, and added, “You’re trying to figure out how to balance the source of the money with the purpose that you’re applying the money to.”
Mr. Epstein voraciously befriended wealthy executives, celebrities and politicians. As the accusations against him widened, though, institutions started investigating their ties to him and accounting for his gifts, sometimes redirecting the money. Mr. Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell in 2019, according to the New York City medical examiner. At the time, Mr. Epstein was awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges.
All colleges and nonprofit groups should ideally have a gift-acceptance policy approved by their trustees, addressing how to handle “tainted money,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, director of the Fund Raising School at Indiana University, referring to gifts from disreputable people.
There are no hard and fast rules about which donors are off limits, he said; rather, it is up to each institution’s board of trustees and the community to hold fund-raisers accountable. He pointed to an old maxim: “If this showed up above the fold in the newspaper, would we be embarrassed? Would we be able to defend this?”
Dr. Botstein said Bard does not have any restrictions about which donors it may accept money from, but it does have a rule that gifts in excess of $10,000 require approval by the board of trustees. Efforts to reach the chairman of Bard’s board, James. C. Chambers, were not immediately successful.
Bard is in better financial shape today than it was when it was wooing Mr. Epstein. The college’s endowment received a $500 million gift n 2021 from the billionaire George Soros, a donation Dr. Botstein called “the most historic moment” for the college since its founding in 1860.
No such gifts came from Mr. Epstein. Visits with him would always be done in less than half an hour, Dr. Botstein said. And aside from Mr. Epstein’s donation of 66 laptop computers, efforts to extract money from him proved unsuccessful.
“He enjoyed humiliating and dangling prospects,” Dr. Botstein said, adding, “He was sadistic. He absolutely strung me along.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.