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.

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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.)

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  • Listen, the reporting on this is going to need to be a lot deeper:

    What projects was Epstein funding? How much input did he have, what with the personal visits to the lab etc? Were there employees or positions etc. that were entirely funded by Epstein (the emails suggest at least one, with a $100K donation dropped to extend a person’s contract). What connects did these people have with Epstein beyond being funded through MIT? Were any of the MIT people, etc., involved with Epstein’s private island? What other financial entanglements were there? What kind of BUDGET OVERSIGHT does MIT maintain over the media lab and other departments, particularly in terms of vetting budgets, fundraising and spending, etc? What recourse do students and those of us who are their parents have for the gigantic stain on the school’s prestige etc from this story? (MIT currently costs over $60K a year). Should there be limits and oversight of the giant private universities once their endowments reach such atmospheric heights? MIT’s endowment is over 14 BILLION! They charge the students an amount that approaches the median annual household income average in the US every year; and yet there seems to be a disgusting amount of money harvesting going on as with this story. The fundraising seems to be focused on a giant system of a lack of accountability, and the ties between Ito’s fundraising for his fiefdom and Epstein’s money going into investment funds controlled by Ito is grotesque and stinks of the rot of self-dealing. What is going on? Is MIT an educational institution of research and higher learning, or is it a vehicle to enrich those members of the 1% that are privileged to operate the place? I would love to see a complete audit of the media lab, including a forensic accounting of all of the dollars from all sources and all expenditures by project etc., in the last 5 or 6 years. They obviously had an atmosphere of deception and subterfuge, so there should not be any stone unturned. The 30-day review by an outside law firm has the odor of “pin everything on the guy who is already under the bus and then close the books” — but it would be a real disaster to sweep things under the rug with the above questions unanswered. Remember: This man HURT children. These donations at a minimum were at best meant to generate reputational teflon for the man, and at worse to ensnare a venerable institution as an ally (particularly once people at the institution were vulnerable to blackmail since they had done wrong in taking and hiding the source of the funds). What a mess.

  • Although generally a big fan of @sethmnookin, I’m confused. Nobody is giving either Sackler or Koch money back — or getting fired, as far as I know — while both *made* their money harming others/the environment. IMO, every last nickel of Epstein’s estate should be equally divided between his victims, and attorneys arranging this distribution should work pro bono. But Ito accepting the money, particularly as an anonymous donation, doesn’t seem to me to render an obvious moral imperative to refuse his money, particularly since Epstein’s money was NOT a profit from his criminal pedophilia.

    I say this as a victim of CSA whose childhood trauma unambiguously destroyed [my] life.

    Are you prepared to refuse any and all funding from any individual with a black mark on his or her past? Well then, it seems to me that 99% of your substantial donors are immediately disqualified. Taking it a step further, do you believe that a bad person is incapable of *any* good behavior? If so, you must also be willing to admit that a good person is incapable of bad behavior. And anyone who believes that must necessarily be woefully and willfully ignorant of human behavior.

    You needn’t bother telling me that Epstein’s behavior was “more than a black mark,” that is MY area of expertise, not yours. And frankly, the inevitable trauma-splaining does far more harm than good to victims, who are only trying to live another day above ground.

    Most victims of CSA will never see the inside of MIT, not because we are without merit, but because our ability to realize our full potential was taken from us. At the end of the day, money is necessary for MIT to maintain her standing. I don’t see how refusing money* from a scoundrel like Epstein (and I would certainly call him immoral rather than amoral) makes MIT (or Ito) extra virtuous.

    (*money that is a direct profit from harming others *should* be refused, but is it?)

    • This is a more eloquent version of what I intended to say. Maybe that makes me “Ayn-Randian” (a statement that would make my conservative parents actually die of laughter), but I don’t believe accepting a gift is an endorsement of someone’s behavior. Epstein’s money exists regardless – would I rather it go to MIT to do some good in the world or toward purchasing (just typing that made me gag) and horribly scarring another child?

      I work in higher ed fundraising, so this is an important and difficult issue for me. If we didn’t accept donations from anyone who has done wrong, we truly couldn’t accept donations from anyone – odds are, people with the most resources in a capitalist society are people who have and are willing to exploit others for their own gain. Contrary to popular belief, donors cannot and do not have the power to direct research or programs beyond very basic parameters, at least at every university I’ve worked at or known (all public, though). “I would like to support cancer research” is welcomed, “I would like my son to be guaranteed admission and I would like my mother to receive priority over other patients in the cancer ward” is straight up illegal.

      Sometimes you have to work within a system to dismantle it. Should I just sit around and cry that the world is broken while doing nothing to change it? What’s wrong with taking bad money, with the understanding that it isn’t an endorsement of the donor’s behavior, they won’t have power over how the money is used, and they won’t receive recognition or praise, and turning it into something good that could benefit others? Isn’t that close to the ideal use of money like Epstein’s?

    • “odds are, people with the most resources in a capitalist society are people who have and are willing to exploit others for their own gain.” Do you mean all those thousands businessmen and corporations getting rich exploiting us for money by forcing us to buy food, clothing, shelter, energy, electronics, vacations, entertainment, etc.?

    • @Alex Holland (sorry, looks like I can’t reply to you directly) I mean it more in the sense that, sure, a lot of business owners might be *generally* good people, but many don’t pay their employees a living wage – especially in the case of mega wealthy people like Jeff Bezos whose low-level Amazon warehouse employees have been reported to wear adult diapers because they’re not allotted bathroom breaks and earn an average of $13.50 an hour. Should we not accept gifts from Amazon? Should we not accept gifts from people who own and operate a small town grocery store, but their produce was picked by migrant workers who are hired illegally and paid significantly less than minimum wage? In the sense that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I don’t believe there’s such thing as a *truly* ethical transaction. My question was more centered on where do we draw the line? If we only accept donations that are “purely clean money,” the nonprofit sector would die out almost immediately.

    • @Emily: we are absolutely on the same page. I would also offer Bezos as an example. Thanks very much for speaking up. Ironically, people who call themselves “progressive” often use right wing bullying tactics to silence dissenting opinions. I guess if you’ve seen one orthodoxy, you’ve seen them all.

    • @Emily Perhaps the problem is our standard of ethics? Is the fact that some are rich, while others poor, really an appropriate ethical standard on its own? Does it not matter how one gets rich? Is lumping a sex trafficker and a retailer that makes life better for millions into the same “rich” group really just? No matter what wage one earns from Bezos, presumably he works voluntarily and would be doing something else if that were a better option for him.

  • I applaud Mnookin’s stance on Epstein, but he doesn’t go far enough about the Koch brothers. They gave generously to MIT, but they also heavily ed-vertise in the Globe, with this irritating “Bold Types” series of weird ad/interviews with local thinkers and policymakers. Care to comment?

  • “Ayn Randian ends-justify-the-means ethos”? Read most everything she ever wrote. Exactly opposite of her actual view. You do care about facts and truth I presume?

    • Regardless of the terminology you want to use — moral egoism, rational egoism, ethical egoism — Rand’s core tenet was to equate individual happiness with morality. I’m confused as to how one would interpret that as the *opposite* of ends-justify-the-means: If your personal happiness is indistinguishable from moral truth, anything you do in pursuit of what you want/think is right is acceptable. “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” — John Galt’s vow in Atlas Shrugged — sums it up pretty effectively.

    • I can not make any sense of your reply. There is no core tenet equating individual happiness with morality. To me her ideas imply that happiness requires morality, but that is a different discussion. The John Galt quote is to me a very reasonable attitude implying that a master or a slave relationship among men is a false alternative. (“master” – ask another man to live for me; “slave” – live for the sake of another). A 3rd option is for each man to live for himself, voluntarily trading values with other peaceful men. Rand’s morality argues clearly why taking values by force is not in one’s self interest. In order to understand her ideas, one has to read her arguments from their root and understand her usage of moral terms. They are different from common usage, but in my opinion far more clear, motivated and well-defined. How is the common usage of “selfishness”, for example, clearly defined, so that every choice can be categorized as selfish (immoral) or unselfish (moral)? Rand’s usage flips this on its head, and allows one to answer such moral questions clearly. Funny, my original email no longer allows me to post?

  • I’m an MIT colleague of Seth’s and totally agree with his perceptive analysis of the funding of university programs, research and infrastructure. Universities have an ethical obligation to guide higher education—for everyone. This cannot be done, if they are compromised by the financial means of their operations. Perceptive article. Jp

    • I applaud Mnookin’s stance on Epstein, but he doesn’t go far enough about the Koch brothers. They gave generously to MIT, but they also heavily ed-vertise in the Globe, with this irritating “Bold Types” series of weird ad/interviews with local thinkers and policymakers. Care to comment?

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