Following the apparent jailhouse suicide of disgraced money manager and academic dilettante Jeffrey Epstein, two prominent Cambridge universities grapple with a straightforward ethical question that has been made out to be needlessly complex: Should an educational institution which has been the beneficiary of the largess of someone who, it turns out, was a monster, return or otherwise redirect donations of “dirty money”? The two universities seem to have arrived at somewhat different answers to this question.

Epstein, it will be remembered by those who have managed to keep up with the glut of media coverage, was arrested in July of 2019 on federal sex trafficking charges. At the time of his arrest, Epstein was already a convicted sex offender, having pled guilty in 2008 to state prostitution charges in order to avoid federal prosecution. Epstein ended up serving 13 months in county jail—much of it on work release—in an arrangement deemed by many to be extraordinarily lenient in view of the general opprobrium attached to sex offenses against the underaged.

Following his 2019 arrest, Epstein was denied bail and held at the infamous Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal detention facility in Manhattan. The miserable conditions—certainly a sharp departure from Epstein’s cushy former life—likely proved to be too much for him. Perhaps realizing that he could very well spend the rest of his life behind bars, and that his ample financial means could only do so much to ameliorate the hardships that accompany incarceration, Epstein took his own life barely a month after his arrest. (While there are some who doubt that Epstein’s death was suicide rather than homicide, the result is that he will have no trial, and certain questions likely will never be answered.)

Epstein’s death leaves a long line of victims in its wake, some of whom wished to face him in court and will now never have that opportunity. Epstein also leaves behind the many educational institutions that benefited from his considerable financial donations. A self-described “science philanthropist,” Epstein amassed an impressive network of the world’s leading scholars, scientists, and public intellectuals, by giving liberally to their personal research projects and home institutions. Epstein’s philanthropy enabled him to cultivate close connections with higher-ups at several prominent universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In typical fashion, the media has taken the now-hot story as an opportunity to root out and vilify every person and every institution that has ever had anything to do with Epstein, regardless of whether the individuals and institutions had any knowledge of Epstein’s crimes. The public, galvanized by the media, has placed tremendous pressure on the numerous beneficiaries of Epstein’s sizable gifts to come to terms with their relationships with the now-deceased sex offender. It is in this climate that Harvard and MIT face calls to return or otherwise redirect Epstein’s “dirty money.”

The two universities have thus far responded in very different ways. Back in 2006, when the allegations against Epstein first emerged, Harvard made clear that it had no intention of returning or redirecting any of the millions of dollars it received. More than a decade later, and even after intense public pressure following Epstein’s 2019 federal indictment, Harvard reaffirmed this stance.

Faculty members and administrators at Harvard have remained largely silent. An exception to this silence is George Church, Harvard’s Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics. In an interview, Church apologized for his “poor awareness and judgement” in having meetings and phone calls with Epstein, citing “nerd tunnel vision” as the cause. Although Church admitted that his lab received a donation from Epstein, he placed the blame elsewhere, stating that the responsibility of vetting potential donors lies with administrators, not with scientists.

MIT, on the other hand, has been bending over backwards to appease the public by issuing mea culpas for various complicities, imagined or otherwise, stemming from the university’s ties to Epstein. In an email sent to the MIT community, University President L. Rafael Reif revealed that MIT accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Epstein’s various foundations over two decades, all of which went either to the Media Lab or to Physics Professor Seth Lloyd. Reif issued a groveling apology and promised to essentially redirect Epstein’s gifts by donating an equal amount to charities that assist victims of sexual abuse.

That same day, MIT Professor Seth Lloyd issued a public apology addressed to Epstein’s victims, calling his decision to accept two grants from Epstein “professional as well as moral failings” because he “disempowered [Epstein’s] victims.” Lloyd promised to commit an unstated amount of financial resources to aid Epstein’s victims and other victims of sexual violence. There was no rationale, much less a satisfactory explanation, for how an educational institution’s acceptance of money from a bad person “disempowered” or otherwise impacted victims. Nor was there any discussion of other past donors in MIT’s long history whose morality or ethics are not up to modern standards.

Lloyd and Reif’s apologies came a week after Joichi Ito, director of MIT’s esteemed Media Lab, revealed in a public apology that the Lab’s relationship with Epstein spans over half a decade, when Ito first invited Epstein to the Lab in 2013. Ito solicited and then continued to accept Epstein’s gifts over the years, all of this after Epstein had registered as a sex offender. Ito apologized for involving the Media Lab with Epstein, and vowed both to return Epstein’s gifts and to donate an equivalent amount to non-profits that support trafficking survivors.

Ito’s apology didn’t quite cut it for two researchers at the Media Lab, who announced their plans to leave the lab at the end of the upcoming academic year. In his statement, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Lab’s Center for Civic Media, castigated Ito for accepting Epstein’s donations, and stated that the Lab was no longer an appropriate venue for his own work, which focuses on social justice. Just a day later, visiting scholar J. Nathan Matias announced that he too would be ending his affiliation with the Lab. Matias’ statement mimicked Zuckerman’s—a lab with financial ties to Epstein was not a proper setting for his work, part of which focuses on protecting women from online abuse.

How did the two neighboring universities arrive at such different responses to their respective Epstein problems? Harvard, in announcing its plans to retain Epstein’s donations back in 2006, cited the important research—into cancers, viruses, and evolutionary biology—that Epstein’s gifts were used to fund. And Harvard’s then-interim President, Derek Bok, stood by an open letter he wrote as Harvard’s president back in 1979, in which he argued that accepting a gift does not imply endorsement of the benefactor’s actions or views, and that in general, donations should be accepted “on the ground that the tangible benefits of using the money ... should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions.”

MIT appears to reject this straightforward utilitarian argument. The researchers at the Media Lab apparently think that the Lab’s mere financial affiliation with Epstein – with MIT on the receiving end of the donor’s gifts – somehow taints the Lab, despite there being no evidence suggesting that Epstein sought to influence the Lab’s work. In the proliferating number of statements from MIT, no mention is made of the various projects that were funded by Epstein’s gifts, nor of the good that undoubtedly came as a result of those projects, nor of the students whose educations benefitted.

Of course, we cannot know the true motivations underlying Harvard and MIT’s responses, although we can probably assume that these institutional decisions were made at the highest levels. Harvard, in keeping Epstein’s gifts, retained millions of dollars; MIT, in returning Epstein’s gifts, placated the social media mob even though it did not dissuade the faculty departures. However, other institutions grappling with their own financial ties to Epstein or to other donors whose morals or ethics might be questioned, would do well to follow Harvard’s example. Everyone agrees that Epstein was a monster. His vast philanthropy was probably motivated by less-than-stellar reasons—e.g., to rebuild his reputation after his 2008 conviction, or perhaps merely to be able to hobnob with the intelligentsia. But for the institutions that put Epstein’s donations to good use, Epstein’s motivations, however dubious, have no moral relevance. Sometimes bad people bring about good. There is nothing inconsistent in holding that Epstein was morally deplorable while also recognizing that his donations likely made the world a better place, however uncomfortable this may be to acknowledge.

Many institutions have had to reckon with the present knowledge that contributions were made by donors then or now recognized as tainted. The most difficult decisions doubtless have had to be made by institutions for which changing mores have raised the question of whether the long-ago naming of buildings or programs (or entire universities) after now-disgraced donors should be reversed. But where a monument has not been built, nor a program named, to honor a donor, it would seem that there is no reasonable justification, other than moral grandstanding or ethical preening, for returning money that would otherwise be used for the education of our children.

Harvey Silverglate, WGBH’s “Freedom Watch” writer, is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and author in Boston. Monika Greco is a graduate of the philosophy master’s program at Tufts University, and writes about ethical issues for the general public.