A well-known member of the MIT Media Lab plans to resign in protest over revelations that the research center and its top leader took money from Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier who was accused of trafficking in underage girls.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, last week told officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of his plans.
Late Tuesday, he told the Globe that “I’m working with my students and staff to move my work out of the Media Lab. That might involve moving to another part of MIT. It might mean moving elsewhere.”
He also posted a fuller explanation on the Medium website.
Zuckerman was among the chief organizers of the Media Lab’s annual Disobedience Award, which recognizes risk-takers and rabble-rousers and last year honored #MeToo activists.
In a note to the past award winners, Zuckerman said he was “heartbroken” about his decision.
“I am ashamed of my institution today and starting the hard work of figuring out how to leave the Lab while taking care of my students and staff,” Zuckerman wrote in a note that was obtained by The Boston Globe. “I no longer feel I can continue working on issues of social justice under the banner of the Media Lab.”
Zuckerman said that Joi Ito, the Media Lab’s director, failed to be transparent about Epstein’s funding of the lab and the money that Ito took from Epstein for his personal investments in tech startups.
Zuckerman declined to discuss his decision to leave but confirmed he sent the message to previous winners of the Disobedience Award.
“I felt obligated as one of the organizers of the prize to express my dismay over Joi’s revelations and explain some of the actions I am taking as a result of those revelations,” Zuckerman said in an e-mail on Tuesday.
Last week, Ito apologized publicly for the lab’s ties to Epstein. In an open letter, Ito acknowledged for the first time that he had invited Epstein to the Media Lab, traveled to the financier’s homes, and accepted money from him for both the research center and for Ito’s own investments.
Ito said he met Epstein in 2013, five years after Epstein had pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution and served a year in jail.
In his apology, Ito said he would raise the equivalent to what Epstein gave the Media Lab and donate it to nonprofits that work with survivors of trafficking. He also promised to return the money Epstein invested in his funds.
Ito was one of several academics in recent weeks to try to distance himself from Epstein.
Over decades, Epstein nurtured a reputation as a “science philanthropist” and surrounded himself with biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and artificial intelligence researchers, including icons at MIT and Harvard University.
Epstein feted them on his private island and in his lavish homes and funded their research.
Epstein was found dead earlier this month in his jail cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking of minors.
Neither MIT nor Ito have been specific about how much money Epstein donated.
According to publicly available documents, Epstein’s foundation and nonprofit gave MIT at least $200,000.
Epstein’s contributions to the Media Lab were controversial dating back to 2015. At that time, allegations had surfaced that Epstein forced an underage girl to have sex with Britain’s Prince Andrew, and several organizations said they would stop taking his money. Epstein had bragged in press releases and on his website about providing funding to MIT, including for a Media Lab venture that taught toddlers programming. However, MIT at the time said that Epstein was “completely incorrect” about his financing of the children’s technology, according to Reuters.
MIT officials have not disclosed what projects Epstein’s donations funded.
Still, Epstein remained an esteemed donor at the Media Lab.
In 2017, the Media Lab made Epstein and other select donors “orbs” to thank them for their contributions. The orbs were similar to the trophies presented a few months earlier to the winners of the Disobedience Award — basically a giant version of a child’s marble.
An MIT official said the gift to Epstein “was not a Disobedience Award or a replica,” but declined to explain the differences.
That year marked the inaugural celebration of the Disobedience Award, and the Media Lab honored the scientists who drew attention to lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich.
The Media Lab’s Epstein ties and Zuckerman’s resignation have been dismaying, said Sherry Marts, one of last year’s prize winners, who works with academic trade groups and nonprofits to combat bullying and harassment.
Marts said she is struggling to understand how Ito hung out with Epstein, yet at the same time helped start an award that most recently honored female activists trying to combat harassment and abuse.
“It’s kind of creepy,” Marts said. “I’m still wrestling with it.”
Mona Eltahawy, an Arab activist and feminist author who was a featured speaker at last year’s Disobedience Award, said Ito should resign.
Many people justified taking money from Epstein because they never saw him behaving badly, Eltahawy said.
But Epstein used those donations to polish his reputation and build his stature, and it came at the expense of young girls, she said.
“Everyone must be held accountable,” Eltahawy said.
In his note, Zuckerman said he believes Ito is trying to make amends. Zuckerman said he and Ito exchanged several e-mails last week.
In one, Ito “told me, ‘I allowed myself to be exactly THAT MAN who ignores the signs of the predators who don’t show that side of themselves to their colleagues,’ ” Zuckerman said.
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