In the wake of revelations about the MIT Media Lab’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, two star scholars have announced they will resign from the esteemed research center. Epstein, a disgraced financier who faced charges of trafficking underaged girls and previously pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution, killed himself earlier this month. Joi Ito, the director of the lab, has apologized for associating with Epstein but has not resigned. Here are five things to know about the controversy:
What is the Media Lab?
Founded in 1985, the Media Lab’s mission is to design technologies for a better future. The research center prides itself on an “antidisciplinary” culture that encourages its affiliates to work together across fields, its website said.
More than 30 faculty and researchers lead the lab, which was working on more than 450 projects last fall. The lab, which MIT says “creates disruptive technologies that happen at the edges,” has gained credit as the incubator of a wide range of innovations.
The lab accepts approximately 50 master’s and PhD candidates — from a range of backgrounds, including computer science, architecture, and psychology — through the Program of Media Arts and Sciences each year. It has 100 staff members, according to its website.
Who funds the Media Lab?
Unlike most academic centers, the lab adopted an industry-sponsored funding model that aims to give scholars more time to focus on their projects instead of grant applications.
Most of its annual operating budget of about $75 million comes from more than 80 companies, according to its website. The companies include consulting firms, banks, biotech companies, car companies, and tech giants such as Google.
Who is Joi Ito?
Joichi “Joi” Ito took the helm of the Media Lab in 2011.
Born in Japan, Ito has established himself as an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and a leading expert on the ethics and governance of technology. In 2018, he completed his PhD program at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance.
Ito serves on the board of several organizations, including The New York Times Co. and the MacArthur Foundation, according to his personal website.
How is Joi Ito connected to Jeffrey Epstein?
A week ago, Ito publicly apologized for accepting money from Epstein for the lab and for his own investment funds. Ito said he had traveled to Epstein’s homes and invited him to visit the research center. He emphasized he “never saw any evidence of the horrific acts” Epstein was accused of.
In the open letter, Ito vowed to raise the same amount of money that Epstein had donated to the Media Lab and donate it to nonprofits that support survivors of sex trafficking. He also pledged to return the money Epstein had invested in Ito’s venture capital funds.
Ito and MIT have not disclosed the amount of money Epstein donated, but publicly available documents show that Epstein’s foundation and nonprofit gave MIT at least $200,000.
Who is Ethan Zuckerman and why did he resign?
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, said he decided to resign from the lab after learning of Ito’s ties with Epstein.
In a Medium post published Tuesday, Zuckerman said Ito told him on Aug. 9 about his connections to Epstein. Zuckerman said he told Ito the next day he planned to move his work out of the lab by May 2020.
Zuckerman is a respected scholar in quantitative research on media and cofounded Global Voices, an international community of bloggers and activists. Focusing on the relationship between media and social change, his center designs tools to better understand how ideas spread in the media and to support civic participation.
His plan to resign was first reported by the Globe, which had obtained a note that Zuckerman sent to the women who last year won the lab’s Disobedience Award for their #MeToo activism. In his apology to them, Zuckerman said he was “ashamed” of his institution.
“I no longer feel I can continue working on issues of social justice under the banner of the Media Lab,” Zuckerman wrote.
Who is J. Nathan Matias?
The second person associated with the lab to announce his intention to resign was J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar who had studied under Zuckerman.
During his past two years as a visiting scholar, the lab supported a project he founded “to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet,” Matias wrote in his own Medium post Wednesday.
“CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment,” Matias wrote. “I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.”
Matias said he was “profoundly disappointed” in Ito’s ties with Epstein and the lab’s lack of oversight in that regard.