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MIT Media Lab offers painful lesson on donations

Joi Ito stepped down Saturday from the MIT Media Lab.Phillip Faraone/Getty Images/File 2018

When rich people want to burnish their reputations, they donate to universities, museums, and other nonprofits. Therein lies the opportunity — and the danger — for any organization that relies on fund-raising to survive, as the MIT Media Lab has so painfully learned.

There are so many good, honest people generously supporting causes. Accepting their money is easy.

But sometimes the calls aren’t so simple. Two families — the Saudi royals and the Sacklers of opioid infamy — come immediately to mind. When, exactly, did their money become dirty money?

Then there is Jeffrey Epstein. The financier and adviser to billionaires seemed legit. Among those who accepted his donations were Harvard University and Bill Clinton’s foundation.


But then in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges in Florida of soliciting prostitution, including from a minor. He got off easy — 13 months in a work-release program — even though it was pretty obvious he had recruited hundreds of underage girls for sex.

After that, Epstein was like a drug kingpin cleaning money through front businesses — except that he was trying to launder his toxic reputation. He fared OK for a decade, but his luck ran out in July, when he was charged with sex trafficking after some inspiring investigative reporting by The Miami Herald’s Julie Brown. Epstein hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial.

Epstein must have been damn charismatic, because he charmed some very smart people into doing dumb things, including taking his money in return for a little bit of their sanitizing legitimacy.

One of those people was Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab.

Ito came under heavy criticism after acknowledging he had taken $525,000 from Epstein for the lab and $1.2 million for his own investment funds. He stepped down Saturday after The New Yorker reported that he and other Media Lab colleagues had tried to hide their Epstein ties from MIT’s administrators.


But more than charisma was a factor in Epstein’s relationship with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ito and others at the Cambridge school, including Peter Cohen, the lab’s former director of development and strategy, sought to keep Epstein’s name off his donations and those Epstein solicited from people such as Bill Gates.

Why? Because some folks at MIT just couldn’t bring themselves to turn down big money, even if they needed a shower after accepting it. Epstein was even on a list of people disqualified from giving money to MIT. Protests by some staffers went unheeded.

MIT is hiring an outside legal firm to investigate l’affaire Epstein.

“We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect M.I.T.’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future,” the school’s president, L. Rafael Reif, wrote in an e-mail sent to the university community.

I wish Reif luck.

Like politicians, higher education leaders are addicted to money from big donors. New labs, dorms, and performing arts centers aren’t cheap.

The same is true for cultural institutions and other nonprofits, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the small-town nonprofit.

It’s clear recipients have to be more vigilant and discriminating. The relentless drive to raise money needs to be rethought and priorities reset.

Whose money is clean and whose money is not? What kind of behavior puts you off-limits?


These can be tough questions to answer.

Facebook has repeatedly misused our personal data, and violated government agreements after being caught. Should founder Mark Zuckerberg’s money be shunned?

But here’s a place to start: If your development officer doesn’t want a donor’s name to be widely circulated, then don’t take the money.

Joi Ito took the money even though he was ashamed of where it came from.

That’s why he had to resign.

And that’s why MIT, and many other institutions, have a lot of hard choices ahead of them.

Larry Edelman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.