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Two tumultuous months at MIT

Disclosures about gifts involving Jeffrey Epstein led to the resignation of Media Lab director Joi Ito, questions about MIT’s commitment to “meaningful inclusion,” and examination of fund-raising and collaboration practices.
October 23, 2019

Revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT and investments in the personal venture funds of Media Lab director Joi Ito stunned the campus in August, shortly after Epstein committed suicide in jail while facing charges of sex trafficking of minors.

On August 15, in a letter to the Media Lab community that he then posted to his blog, Ito apologized for having accepted Epstein’s money on behalf of the Media Lab, vowing to raise an equivalent amount for trafficking survivors. He also apologized for allowing Epstein to invest in his private investment funds, saying he’d return that money.

The news led Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, to announce that he would end his affiliation with the lab after this academic year, noting that he had urged Ito to steer clear of Epstein in 2014. Epstein had been convicted six years earlier of soliciting a minor for prostitution. “It’s hard to do [social justice] work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship,” he wrote in a Medium post. But more than 160 colleagues rallied to Ito’s defense, signing a letter of support. In an op-ed in The Guardian, Media Lab researcher Kate Darling wrote that despite feeling betrayed, she would stay at the lab to help Ito and others “create real change and shift the landscape of power.”  

On August 22, in a letter to the MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif said records indicated that MIT had received approximately $800,000 from foundations controlled by Epstein over 20 years, all of which had gone to the Media Lab or to Professor Seth Lloyd, whose research focuses on quantum computing. He called acceptance of these funds “a mistake of judgment” and asked Provost Martin Schmidt to convene a group to examine the facts, review MIT’s processes, and suggest improvements.

At a meeting on September 4, Ito apologized for accepting $525,000 for the Media Lab and $1.2 million for his private investment funds and pledged to make amends. As the meeting ended, Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte said he stood by his past decision to advise Ito to take Epstein’s money. He later clarified that he would not make the same decision today given the recent criminal accusations against Epstein.

On September 6, the New Yorker reported that Epstein had facilitated donations to the Media Lab of $5.5 million from investor Leon Black and $2 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates (although Gates denies that Epstein directed his gift to MIT). The article described efforts by Media Lab staff to conceal Epstein’s involvement and make his own donations anonymous. The next day, Ito resigned as director of the Media Lab (and from MIT Technology Review’s board). President Reif announced that MIT had retained the law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate Epstein’s interactions with MIT.

On September 12, Reif announced that Goodwin Procter had provided a preliminary update in which the firm stated that it had found that he had signed a letter to Epstein in 2012, six weeks into his presidency, acknowledging his donation to Lloyd’s lab. The firm also reported finding that senior MIT administrators had spoken to Ito about Epstein’s gift to the Media Lab in 2013 and accepted Ito’s assessment that Epstein had stopped his criminal behavior. They asked Ito to make Epstein’s gifts anonymous so he could not use them to enhance his reputation. The firm found that Epstein’s gifts were discussed during at least one meeting at which Reif was present.

“We did not see through the limited facts we had, and we did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offenses or the harm to his young victims,” Reif wrote to the MIT community. “I take responsibility for those errors.” He added that once the firm’s fact-finding and the internal review are finished, “MIT will have the tools to improve our review and approval processes and turn back to the central work of the Institute.”

The issue dominated the September faculty meeting, at which a letter signed by more than 60 female professors was read. It said the Epstein revelations point to “broader, more structural problems, involving gender and race, in MIT’s culture” and “prompted many to question MIT’s commitment to meaningful inclusion.” The full text of Reif’s remarks to the faculty is available here.

At the end of September, Reif attended the annual meeting of the Alumni Leadership Conference, addressing some 650 alumni who play leadership roles within the MIT Alumni Association. In a conversation with MITAA president R. Erich Caulfield SM ’01, PhD ’06, Reif took questions from the full group of assembled alumni. And in early October, Reif held separate forums for students, staff, and postdocs and researchers to discuss the Epstein issue and how MIT will address the challenges it has raised.

On October 15, Chair of the Faculty Rick Danheiser and Provost Martin Schmidt announced the creation of two related committees that will examine MIT’s external engagements and review its policies and processes on soliciting and accepting gifts. One will examine and advise on the principles governing MIT’s decisions to engage with outside entities and individuals. The other will review and recommend improvements to MIT’s processes for soliciting, processing, and accepting gifts.

 Meanwhile, a temporary executive committee of Professors Pattie Maes, Deb Roy, Tod Machover, and Maria Zuber (also MIT’s vice president for research), as well as VP for Human Resources Ramona Allen, will lead the Media Lab while Maes, the committee’s chair, heads the search for a new director.

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