Students question Kennedy School’s ties to Wexners, Dubin, and Black

  • Some of Jeffrey Epstein’s former associates — Leslie Wexner, Glenn Dubin, and Leon Black — have endowed fellowships at Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government.
  • Now some students are calling on the school to address its relationship with the men, students tell Business Insider.
  • The concerns became public last week at a forum the school hosted with #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, when some students asked her about whether the school has an obligation to cut ties to men who were in Epstein’s orbit.
  • Wexner and Dubin were quietly removed from a Kennedy School leadership council earlier this year. 
  • Last month, the school told graduate student applicants they should “thoroughly review” donors’ backgrounds before applying for fellowships, per a leaked email to Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Harvard University has struggled mightily to distance itself from Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who donated at least $9 million to various Harvard schools and related groups over the years, and pursued friendships with some of its most well-known professors and administrators, including former Harvard president and secretary of the treasury Larry Summers and professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz.

In September, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow acknowledged that the school’s relationship with Epstein was a mistake, and promised to vet donors more stringently in the future.

But rancor over the extent to which Epstein used his association with Harvard to launder his reputation has reached one of the university’s crown jewels: the prestigious Kennedy School of Government. Business Insider has learned that some students at the public policy-focused graduate program are asking the school to re-examine its relationships with donors who were tied socially, philanthropically, or financially to the convicted sex criminal, including Victoria’s Secret billionaire Les Wexner and his wife Abigail; private equity giant Leon Black; and hedge fund pioneer Glenn Dubin.

Wexner was Epstein’s primary patron for decades, though he now says Epstein stole from him. Dubin is married to Epstein’s ex-girlfriend, who has described Epstein as “a very close and important friend to my family” and “the godfather of my three children and … close friend of my husband.” Black relied on Epstein for tax and philanthropic advice for years and invited Epstein to serve as a director of his private foundation.

The Harvard Kennedy School, as it is known, continues to embrace the three billionaires. But two of them — Wexner and Dubin — were quietly removed from the school’s leadership council earlier this year, and the school advised students last month to carefully review the backgrounds of the donors whose fellowships they apply for, per records reviewed by Business Insider.

One graduate student openly raised the issue last week at an HKS forum with #MeToo founder and activist Tarana Burke. 

Some of the students raising concerns note that their peers are midway through multi-year master’s programs funded with fellowship money from Black, Dubin, or Wexner. They sought the money before their benefactors’ ties to Epstein came under scrutiny following his arrest last July. Some students said their classmates worry that continuing to accept the money could taint their résumés or signal their approval of the donors’ ties to Epstein. But with tuition and fees at HKS running nearly $60,000 a year for a master’s degree in public policy, they are reluctant to simply turn away financial support they had been counting on. 

Students who spoke to Business Insider also expressed frustration at what they say is HKS’s failure to confront the Epstein issue squarely. Business Insider spoke with the students on the condition of anonymity, because they fear professional consequences from speaking out against influential billionaires. 

A representative for HKS declined to answer questions about the donors’ relationships to the school. Instead, he emailed a statement that underscored Harvard president Bacow’s September message that the university would review its donor practices. 

“Past donations from the people you mention have enabled Harvard Kennedy School to provide hundreds of student scholarships, hire additional faculty, grow our research centers, and transform the physical campus for 21st century learning,” the statement said in part.

The spokesman declined to comment when asked whether the Wexner, Dubin, and Black are current donors. 

Representatives for Black and the Wexners did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Dubin declined to comment. 

Black, a Harvard MBA, is the only one of the group who attended the university, though some of the donors’ children graduated from or are currently at various Harvard schools, including HKS. Despite his donations and courtship of top professors, Epstein himself did not attend Harvard.  

jeffrey epstein

Jeffrey Epstein in his Harvard sweatshirt.

Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Quiet removal from council

The HKS’s Center for Public Leadership, which describes itself as a “global hub for leadership learning,” offers eleven different fellowships targeted at different kinds of students, including a Black Family Fellowship, a Dubin Fellowship for Emerging Leaders, and a Wexner Israel Fellowship. It also maintains a Leadership Council, which it describes as “a network of business, philanthropic, and civic innovators committed to” the center’s mission.

Both Leslie Wexner and his wife Abigail, as well as Glenn Dubin, were listed as members of the council on the center’s web site as of early January, according to an archived copy of the site, but their names have since been removed. There was no public or internal announcement of their departures, according to students.

Before mid-January, the Center for Public Leadership website noted that membership on the council “is accompanied by an annual contribution.” The site now says that “members of the Leadership Council are invited to join the Council by the center director and often rotate out after a period of time.” Black remains on the council. 

The fellowships sponsored by Black, Dubin, and Wexner appear to remain active: Black provides partial tuition assistance for up to 25 veterans at Harvard graduate schools including HKS; Dubin gives full scholarships for up to two years of an HKS master’s program; and Wexner supports up to 10 Israeli professionals pursuing one-year HKS master’s degrees. 

The donors’ footprints go beyond fellowships, extending to summer stipends and other programs, presenting hard choices for students eager to defray the schools costs but wary of taking money from people they view as tied to Epstein.  

“For students finding out about these things after they’re enrolled at HKS, there’s not a way to say, ‘I’m concerned about these donors’ ties,'” said one student. “Am I indirectly validating or supporting the behaviors of that donor? That’s one of the big concerns. With Wexner, Black, and Dubin, are we endorsing this behavior because we carry the names of these donors?”

Another student said she would like to see HKS make a statement about Dubin, Black, and Wexner along the same lines as the one that Bacow, Harvard’s president, released in September. That email disclosed Epstein’s total donations and entanglements with the university, including his role as a visiting fellow in the psychology department in 2005. Bacow said Harvard would redirect unspent funds received from Epstein to organizations supporting victims of human trafficking and sexual assault. He also said he would convene a group to review how to vet donors.  

A vague warning to applicants

In a February email to students, HKS urged those applying for Center for Public Leadership fellowships to “thoroughly review” information about the fellowship, “including the history and background of the donor.” That language was not included in similar emails to applicants in years past, students said, and the email didn’t elaborate on why students may want to investigate their potential funders.

Students have publicly urged more transparency. In a November opinion piece in HKS’s student newspaper, editor-in-chief Hasan Sheikh, a graduate student at the school, asked for better donor vetting, both of Epstein-linked donors and other controversial philanthropists, saying “if the school is serious about fundamentally changing how it vets its donors, it needs to first reflect on its current class and the messages being conveyed by the names on our buildings and the sponsors of our fellowships.” 

Last week at an HKS forum, a student asked Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, about the school’s responsibilities regarding donors who were personally and professionally connected to Epstein. Burke urged transparency and courage.  

“I hope that Harvard will handle it in a way that feels courageous,” she said. “It sends a signal to the rest of the school, the community. Harvard is an example for other institutions. This is how you do this: You look it dead in the eye and say, ‘we made a mistake’ or ‘we took too long’ or whatever the thing is, but here’s what we’re going to do moving forward.” 

Varying consequences

Wexner, Dubin, and Black have largely avoided speaking publicly about their relationships to Epstein.

In September, Wexner addressed investors of Victoria’s Secret parent L Brands in his first remarks about his former money manager. 

“Being taken advantage of by someone who is … so depraved is something I’m embarrassed I’m even close to,” Wexner said. “In the present, everyone has to feel enormous regret for the advantage that was taken of so many young women.”

Dubin has not spoken publicly, and his family’s spokespeople have said since Epstein’s arrest in July that Dubin and his wife regret continuing their relationship with the disgraced financier. 

“Glenn saw him perhaps once a year in large group settings and had no business interactions with him whatsoever after 2007,” one of Dubin’s spokespeople told Business Insider in December. “The Dubins are horrified by Jeffrey Epstein’s despicable conduct. Had they been aware of it, they would have cut off all ties instantly.”

Meanwhile, Black’s representatives have declined a half dozen Business Insider requests for comment on his relationship with Epstein. Black himself refused to talk about it for a January cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek. Over the summer, he told employees and investors that he had turned to Epstein for tax strategy, estate planning, and philanthropic advice, and that his private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, had never done business with Epstein. 

“I was completely unaware of, and am deeply troubled by, the conduct that is now the subject of the federal criminal charges brought against Mr. Epstein,” Black wrote in a letter reviewed by Business Insider

While the men have said they did not know about Epstein’s alleged years-long sex trafficking operation, they have faced varying professional consequences for their relationships to him.  

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which counts Black as chair and Dubin as a trustee, faced protests last year over its association with the major donors, though both men remain on the board. Last month, former wrestlers at Ohio State University, where the Wexners are major donors, asked the state’s inspector general to investigate the school’s connection with Epstein. 

Dubin retired from his hedge fund last month, citing a desire to spend more time on boards and invest elsewhere. Bloomberg reported that at least one major investor had pulled its money from the fund in part because of Dubin’s Epstein connections. And Wexner said last month he would step down after 57 years as CEO of L Brands.

Black remains CEO of Apollo, the private equity juggernaut he founded. Over the summer, none of the two dozen institutional investors contact by Business Insider said they would pull money from his funds because of his links to Epstein, though some said they were reviewing the ties. 

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