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MIT Media Lab founder: Taking Jeffrey Epstein’s money was justified

At an internal meeting, Nicholas Negroponte shocked some people with his comments on funding from the alleged sex trafficker.
Nicholas Negroponte
Nicholas NegroponteUS Naval Academy Photographic Studio via Wikimedia Commons

MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito has faced pressure to resign after revealing that he took research funding from financier and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. But today Nicholas Negroponte, who cofounded the Media Lab in 1985 and was its director for 20 years, said he had recommended that Ito take Epstein’s money. “If you wind back the clock,” he added, “I would still say, ‘Take it.’” And he repeated, more emphatically, “‘Take it.’” 

Negroponte’s comments, made at the end of an all-hands Media Lab meeting this afternoon (September 4), shocked many people in the audience. At least some in the room understood him to be saying that he would have supported taking the money even if he had known then that Epstein was a suspected sex trafficker.

In an earlier version of this story, that is how we reported his remarks. Negroponte had not responded to a request for comment at that point. He subsequently told the Boston Globe, and has since confirmed to us, that he was defending only the original decision to take money from Epstein, who at that point had already been convicted of and served time for a sexual offense involving a minor.  "Given what we know today [about the recent sex-trafficking charges]... nobody would or should have taken his money," Negroponte wrote in an email. "But wind the clock backwards, given what we knew then, I would have accepted his money now."

Regardless, Negroponte’s comments may also shift a narrative that, at least in public, has primarily blamed Ito for working with Epstein. Though Negroponte is no longer director, his justifications help explain the mindset that led so many intellectual luminaries to associate with Epstein. 

“Good grief”

Epstein, who died by suicide in August, was arrested in July and accused of running a years-long sex trafficking operation. In 2008 he had been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution. Epstein was a patron of many famous scientists, including geneticist George Church, biologist Martin Nowak, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. 

In August, Ito, who has led the MIT Media Lab since 2011, revealed that he too had taken money from Epstein for both the Media Lab and his private ventures. (Ito is also on the board of MIT Technology Review; none of Epstein’s money contributed to this publication’s funding, which comes from the MIT general budget.) Ito’s disclosures led to the resignation of both Ethan Zuckerman—a well-known technology activist who ran the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, and who said he had urged Ito in 2014 not to meet with Epstein—and Media Lab visiting scholar J. Nathan Matias. Neither Zuckerman nor Matias responded to requests for comment regarding their departures.

Today’s meeting, attended by a journalist from MIT Technology Review, was meant to be a highly choreographed attempt to ease tensions over the controversy and begin addressing its root causes. The afternoon started off with a collective breathing exercise. The organizers then shared a 90-day action plan before giving Ito the floor to answer questions he had faced since the revelations.

One of those questions was whether he had considered resigning. He said he had, but after consulting many people, including civil rights leaders, on how to conduct an effort in restorative justice, he concluded that he should stay at the Media Lab and help with the healing process. Ito struck an apologetic and pleading tone, repeatedly admitting to his mistakes in accepting the money, and acknowledging the pain he had caused and the learning he still needed to do. “I’m part of the problem when I thought I was part of the solution,” he said. “I’m that guy that I thought I was going after.” The room stayed quiet and somber, and his comments ended in silence.

Answering subsequent questions, Ito said he had taken $525,000 in funding from Epstein for the Lab. Because of the way it was allocated and spent, it had inadvertently been used by everyone there.

Throughout, the meeting had proceeded calmly. But as one of the organizers began to wrap things up, Negroponte stood up, unprompted, and began to speak. He discussed his privilege as a “rich white man” and how he had used that privilege to break into the social circles of billionaires. It was these connections, he said, that had allowed the Media Lab to be the only place at MIT that could afford to charge no tuition, pay people full salaries, and allow researchers to keep their intellectual property. 

Negroponte said that he prided himself on knowing over 80% of the billionaires in the US on a first-name basis, and that through these circles he had come to spend time with Epstein. Over the years, he had two dinners and one ride in Epstein’s private jet alone, where they spoke passionately about science. (He didn’t say whether these occurred before or after Epstein’s 2008 conviction.) It was these interactions, he said, that warmed him to Epstein and made him confidently and enthusiastically recommend that Ito take the money.

It was at this point that Negroponte said he would still have given Ito the same advice today. Different people in attendance had conflicting interpretations of his statement. Some understood him to mean he would act the same way even knowing what he knows now about Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking. But Negroponte told the Boston Globe that in retrospect, “Yes, we are embarrassed and regret taking his money.”

The comments clearly stunned some of his listeners. A woman in the front row began crying. Kate Darling, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, shouted, “Nicholas, shut up!” Negroponte responded that he would not shut up and that he had founded the Lab, to which Darling said, “We’ve been cleaning up your messes for the past eight years.”

Zuckerman, who had spoken earlier in the meeting, also had a brief spat with Negroponte. Negroponte pressed on: in the fund-raising world, he said, these types of occurrences were not out of the ordinary, and they shouldn’t be reason enough to cut off business relationships. It wasn’t until Darling yelled “Shut up!” again that Negroponte mumbled “Good grief,” and sat down. Soon after, the meeting disbanded.

The future of the “Future Factory”

The Media Lab was founded in 1985 and became famous throughout the 1980s and 1990s for its interdisciplinary research. “It has a giant reputation and a cachet that others do not,” says Margaret O’Mara, a historian of technology at the University of Washington. “The cool kids of the tech world have been celebrating the Media Lab for a long time.” That’s particularly because of its idealistic ethos. 

Counterculture icon Stewart Brand wrote a book on the Lab, and Negroponte, who once had an influential column in Wired—a magazine in which he was also an early investor—was key to building the aura of cool. “Negroponte was exceptionally good at projecting what the lab was doing externally, talking it up, bringing in the corporate funding,” says Thomas Haigh, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. 

Negroponte’s comments today underline the broader cultural reckoning that MIT may be facing around the Epstein scandal.  Ito today said he did not make the decision to accept Epstein’s funding on his own, but had asked many advisors to weigh in and had received a full due-diligence review from the university. Many more of his advisors, he said, encouraged him to proceed than cautioned against it. 

Since Ito’s apology, prominent members of the technology community—including MIT Media Lab members Jonathan Zittrain and Rosalind Picard and Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig—have signed an unofficial petition in support of Ito though others with the Media Lab have publicly called for him to step down. 

MIT president L. Rafael Reif acknowledged the university’s “mistake of judgment” in an email sent to the MIT community in late August. MIT received $800,000 over 20 years from Epstein, some of it predating Ito—all of which went to either the Media Lab or MIT professor Seth Lloyd. MIT provost Marty Schmidt will be convening a group to investigate the Epstein donations, and the university will donate an amount equaling those funds to a charity, either to Epstein’s victims or to other victims of sexual abuse.

Editor's note: This story was originally published under the headline "MIT Media Lab founder: I would still take Jeffrey Epstein’s money today." It was updated, and the headline was changed, to reflect the apparent ambiguity in Negroponte's remarks at the meeting. Details on Kate Darling's interaction with Negroponte were also added. On Sept. 5 it was updated again with clarification from Negroponte himself. 

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