We can’t just hold our noses and look away from academia’s dirty money
The 2018 Disobedience Award ceremony was a full MIT Media Lab spectacle. Carefully produced, lavishly catered, part of the lab itself turned into a dance club for a late-night party, this was the lab’s way of using all its prestige and influence to celebrate “individuals and groups who engage in responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices.” Winners of the 2018 awards were Tarana Burke, BethAnn McLaughlin, and Sherry Marts, for their work in the #MeToo movement. McLaughlin is credited with the creation of #MeTooSTEM, a fight to hold accountable scientists and academics guilty of sexual assault or harrassment.
After a keynote by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Lab’s Center for Civic Media, the presentation was made by the Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito, and LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, the award’s funder. Nine months later, Ito had been revealed as having a close business relationship with confessed sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Hoffman as having arranged at least one dinner for him. But it was Zuckerman, who declined to meet with Epstein and warned Ito about him, who had resigned, saying it was impossible to continue social justice work at the Media Lab. Just weeks after Ito’s revelation, days after he asked permission of Lab staff to make amends, Ito abruptly resigned from the Lab, from MIT, from his Harvard affiliation and from many corporate and foundations on which he served.
The stench of Epstein money is embedded in parts of Cambridge’s academic circles in a way that no single resignation cures. Answering the question of who took Epstein money is ongoing work. Journalists, investigators, and outraged individuals are combing the archives of scientific journals to find instances where Epstein’s support was acknowledged. Others are plunging into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to find pictures of gatherings that have been removed from the web. Documents from previous legal cases continue to be unsealed. The names that have surfaced are a mix of the famous and the not so famous. George Church. Marvin Minsky. Seth Lloyd. Martin Nowak, who seems to have had a long relationship with Epstein and allowed Epstein to use his 1 Brattle Street office for gatherings of scientists. One Nowak invitee, Broad Institute head Eric Lander, reports that he was invited to lunch with Nowak without knowing who else would attend. Epstein was there, but, after Lander discovered who Epstein was, he declined further invitations and had no other contact.
Lander’s behavior seems a plausible, common-sense reaction to an attempt to recruit him into Epstein’s circle. Ito’s stands in stark contrast. Initially, he offered a description of his Epstein connections that minimized his involvement. But offering that description in the context of making amends appears to have too much for at least one person who knew the truth. Signe Swenson, a former Media Lab fundraiser, who had quit in 2016 after her warnings about Epstein went unheeded, had receipts, and through Ronan Farrow, provided them to the world. Ito’s office worked so hard at concealing Epstein’s name, Farrow reports, that he was called “Voldemort”, or “he who must not be named.” He described Epstein’s 2015 visit to the Lab and the surreal scene when Lab staff approached two of Epstein’s ever present, young, beautiful, female assistants to make sure that they weren’t there under duress. Pause a moment and consider the monstrous arrogance that brings a convicted sexual predator to a college campus, an action that compelled staff to inquire whether two visitors were unwilling sex slaves.
But even that doesn’t seem to be the end of it. Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, a long time Ito colleague and friend, published a statement of continued support of Ito. The decision to accept Epstein money, Lessig said, was carefully considered, including a discussion with him. He explained Epstein’s anonymity not as a device to protect Ito and MIT but to keep Epstein from using the donations to improve his image. Their mistake, Lessig says, was not to consider what would happen should the secret get out. Published on a Sunday, reading Lessig’s piece and condemning its obtuseness seems to be the way that academic Twitter spent the day.
One reason it’s proving so difficult to document Epstein’s connections, Buzzfeed reports, is that Epstein funneled much of his philanthropy through private equity CEO Hugo Black and literary agent John Brockman and Brockman’s Edge Foundation. Brockman is literary agent to the scientific stars and is the man to whom Epstein trusted the organization of various events to bring him together with scientists. But this mix of rape culture and scientific celebrity had its own impact. Media Lab scientist Dr. Kate Darling, herself a Brockman client, reports going to a recent invitation-only Brockman event and finding herself in a room of mostly men. That was a feature of the Brockman/Epstein axis from its start: the exclusion of women. Brockman, for example, used Epstein’s private jet to fly East Coast scientists, all white men, to the first Ted Talk. As this scientist-celebrity culture blossomed, its gatekeepers excluded women except as sex or breeding objects. It wasn’t that there weren’t any female scientists deserving of the attention Brockman brought to his male clients, it’s that Epstein seemed more interested in women scientists as potential breeding partners in his plan to seed the world with his DNA. Many of the male scientists in this circle went on to be rich and famous through opportunities Brockman and Epstein opened for them, opportunities from which women were systematically excluded. That damage is something we’ve barely begun to confront. Darling has said that she will leave the Brockman Agency when her contractual commitments are complete, but will remain at the Media Lab, saying she believed that Ito is uniquely capable of making the deep structural changes to a system that his own behavior exemplified. In fairness to Darling, Ito, who turns out to have been at the 1999 “Billionaire’s Dinner” which launched this scientific/cultural monoculture, seems to have fooled many people.
Though Ito has been surgically removed from MIT, this doesn’t end the questions. How did someone bring a convicted predatory sex trafficker to campus without thinking of student safety or notification requirements of the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act? How was Ito able to commingle fundraising for his private investment business with fundraising for MIT? There’s the story of Cesar Hidalgo who, until his recent resignation, was the only Hispanic faculty member in Media Lab history. In a long Twitter thread, he describes an environment of marginalization and humiliation and where, as he dryly notes, a convicted sex trafficker had more access to his Lab’s Director than he did. And, lastly, what of Harvard? MIT has apologized and announced an independent investigation of its Epstein involvement. Harvard, despite a longer and deeper involvement than MIT, has remained silent.
As for MIT, It does not diminish the severity of Ito’s actions nor does it downplay the pain of Epstein’s victims to note that this episode should share the spotlight with two other funding scandals. MIT used the occasion of the passing of alum and longtime generous donor David Koch to whitewash his role in climate change denial and call him a model philanthropist. And the Intercept revealed that Steven Schwarzman, for whom MIT’s new jewel—the Schwarzman College of Computing—is named, is a prime force behind the deforestation of the Amazon. The Schwarzman College, it is said, will have a focus on ethics. Perhaps its first colloquium should be on whose money is dirtier: that of a serial child rapist or a destroyer of the planet. It should be a lively discussion.
The 2019 Disobedience award had been canceled prior to Ito’s departure, with at least one selection committee member resigning due to Ito’s Epstein ties.
Disclaimer: The author has enjoyed the hospitality of the MIT Media Lab, has collaborated with Zuckerman’s Center for Civic Media, and counts some Media Lab staff as friends.
A shorter earlier version of this op-ed appeared in the print edition of DigBoston.