A month after Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in a Manhattan jail cell, the number of people infected by his amorality and deceit remains unknown. The latest high-profile casualty is Joichi “Joi” Ito, the longtime head of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the university where I work as a professor and as the director of a graduate program in science journalism.
Instead of viewing this as an isolated incident, universities, colleges, and cultural institutions should use it as an impetus to take a difficult look at their own fundraising efforts. Refusing money from a convicted pedophile should be a no-brainer, but it’s time that the larger academic and scientific communities examine our willingness to accept money from donors whose actions directly oppose our values and missions, even if they’re not overtly criminal.
It’s worth using the still-unfolding Epstein-MIT scandal as a case study of a respected leader sullying his own reputation and damaging a revered institution for the sake of a few more dollars. In mid-August, days after Epstein’s death, Ito apologized for his ties to the accused sex trafficker and serial rapist.
In a statement expressing contrition for accepting a then-undisclosed amount of funding for the Media Lab from Epstein, Ito said, “I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of” — as if sex offenders were in the habit of regularly discussing their crimes with business acquaintances. Ito also vowed to raise the same amount of money MIT had taken from Epstein and donate it to charities that support victims of sex trafficking and to return all of the money Epstein invested in his funds.
Last week, after it became clear that his efforts to brush aside the controversy hadn’t been effective, Ito told a Media Lab town meeting that the total amount of money he’d received from Epstein totaled less than $2 million: $525,000 for the Media Lab and another $1.2 million for Ito’s personal investment funds. (That last fact, which I find particularly flabbergasting, hasn’t received the attention it deserves.)
A few days later, we learned that Ito wasn’t only in the habit of downplaying other people’s actions. On Friday, working with emails and other internal documents as well as interviews with a former Media Lab development coordinator and alumni associate named Signe Swenson, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published a story detailing the ways in which Ito’s financial relationship with Epstein went much deeper than he’d previously acknowledged: Even after Epstein had been labeled “disqualified” in MIT’s donor database, Ito had, according to Farrow, continued to personally solicit Epstein and instruct his underlings to make sure that any donations Epstein made or helped to facilitate be recorded as “anonymous.” When Ethan Zuckerman, an internet and social activist and the director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, told Ito that he thought it was wrong to have any association with Epstein, Ito and his staff took steps to ensure a 2015 on-site meeting between Ito and Epstein was hidden from Zuckerman’s view.
Less than 24 hours after Farrow’s story appeared online, Ito had resigned — from the Media Lab, which he’d directed since the fall of 2011; from the boards of the New York Times, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Knight Foundation; as chairman of the biotech company PureTech Health; and from other academic positions at both Harvard and MIT.
It was a striking fall for the “tech evangelist and master networker.” The shock waves resulting from Ito’s seemingly deliberate deceit — it is obvious that this was not, as Ito initially attempted to claim, an isolated “error in judgment” — will continue to reverberate throughout MIT in the weeks and months to come.
Less than an hour after news of Ito’s resignation broke, MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, sent out an email titled “Fact-finding and action on the Media Lab,” in which he announced that a “prominent law firm” would conduct an “immediate, thorough, and independent investigation.” Among the difficult questions that need to be answered are how many people outside of the Media Lab were aware of Epstein’s donations and whether Ito’s willingness to take Epstein’s money and introduce him to MIT researchers was linked to the $1.2 million Epstein gave Ito for his personal investment funds.
One of the reasons that Ito’s behavior is so jaw-dropping is because it offers an ugly contrast to his carefully cultivated public image as a tech utopian guided by a moral code and not an Ayn Randian ends-justify-the-means ethos. In a 2008 tweet now deservedly ridiculed, Ito wrote, “reminder to self: don’t invest with or take money from assholes.”
In April, in a column titled “Optimize algorithms to support kids online, not exploit them” that was posted on Ito’s personal site as well as on the sites of Wired and the Media Lab, Ito argued against restricting children’s access to online communities by citing how the “leadership” of “churches, schools, malls, parks, and anywhere adults and children interact” are held correctly accountable for “establish[ing] positive norms and punish[ing] abuse.”
The gulf between Ito’s public words and private actions, and the fact that it took Epstein’s death for it to become known, highlight another uncomfortable reality: There is an apparently endless supply of academics and intellectuals willing to excuse both ugly behavior by wealthy elites and the socially destructive actions of the companies they control in the hopes of receiving some trickle-down lucre in the form of gifts, grants, or investment opportunities.
Among the details in this weekend’s coverage was that Ito, like many other scientists and researchers Epstein courted, told friends that Epstein was “brilliant” and “fascinating.” Those are not among the top 100 words I would use to describe a pedophiliac con-man and wannabe eugenicist who collected scientists like butterflies and mused about seeding the human race with his DNA.
It’s not just individual scholars who need to be more introspective and outspoken about the behavior of seedy donors looking to burnish their reputations.
Ito’s departure from the Media Lab, like the recent decisions by a number of high-profile organizations to stop accepting money from those members of the Sackler family made rich by blood money from the opioid crisis, are obvious moves that occurred in the wake of widespread public outcries. Universities, scientific laboratories, and cultural institutions should look more critically at the less immediately apparent ways their fundraising efforts can contradict their underlying missions.
I’m proud that MIT makes no allowances for legacy admissions, a move that separates it from Harvard, Stanford, and virtually all of the country’s other elite universities. That has resulted in millions of dollars in lost donations — but it’s also the reason why MIT’s student body is considerably more economically diverse and accepts a much larger number of first-generation students than its peer institutions.
But there are other disturbing examples of MIT’s willingness to accept donations from people whose work is aggressively opposed to our stated mission of “advancing knowledge and educating students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.”
In February, after an internal review prompted by the Saudi regime’s torturing and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Reif decided that MIT researchers could continue to accept some forms of funding from Saudi state sources despite his “sense of horror” at the government’s actions and oppressive policies. (Four months later, Hala Al Dosari, a Saudi women’s rights activist and scholar previously selected as the Post’s inaugural Khashoggi Fellow, was named a fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.)
Even more disturbing is the conspicuous silence about the fact that the two buildings that frame the entrance to MIT’s campus from Kendall Square — the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Koch Biology Building — are both named after the recently deceased David Koch. Koch and his brother Charles, both of whom graduated from MIT, spent tens of millions of dollars opposing women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and worker’s rights. Those are all positions I find morally abhorrent — but they are not in direct opposition to MIT’s mission. The same cannot be said for the Kochs’ greed-based funding of the climate denial movement, perhaps the most effective and destructive anti-science campaign in history.
Universities are supposed to grapple with the most difficult and urgent issues facing society. At MIT, there’s brilliant work being done in a dizzying array of fields. I don’t know how best to handle the ethics and practicalities of massive fundraising efforts — but I do know we have an obligation to confront the issue head-on instead of continuing with the status quo just because that’s what we’ve always done.
Disclosures: I am a tenured professor at MIT and the director of its Graduate Program in Science Writing. I have no connection with the Media Lab and have never collaborated with any of its researchers. I have met Ito in group settings but have no personal relationship with him. The Center for Civic Media was originally a joint effort between the Media Lab and MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program, which is the academic department in which I am based; I have never had a formal or informal connection with the Center. (At the GPSW we solicit donations, but not if you are a pedophile, climate denier, or a member of a murderous regime.)