In Jeffrey Epstein’s bid to launder his dirty deeds by claiming academic respectability, for a time it seemed his heart was with Harvard, the fantasy alma mater to which he promised tens of millions of dollars.
Yet it is neighborhood rival MIT that is now singing the blues.
The disgraced and now-deceased serial molester and accused sex trafficker cultivated a vast network of superstar scientists and other thinkers as acquaintances. The relationships seem to have been fundamentally transactional. Pedigree thinkers and scholars provided vast intellectual capital. Epstein provided capital in the more traditional sense — seed money for their projects— with travel on Epstein’s private jet, or trips to his private island sometimes included.
I’m sure it beat lunch in the faculty club.
But it has come with a steep price — including in the surprising venue of the MIT Media Lab, where two high-powered researchers severed ties this month in protest of Epstein’s patronage. Calls are growing for the resignation of the head of the lab, Joi Ito.
Ito was forced to publicly apologize for taking Epstein’s money both on behalf of the lab and for his own projects outside of it. It didn’t help that some of those investments had never been disclosed before publicly. Or that a substantial part of the money had been donated subsequent to Epstein’s 2008 conviction in Florida for soliciting a minor for prostitution.
Epstein, of course, is the shadowy financier who committed suicide in a federal correctional center in New York earlier this month while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking of minors. His death has done little to quiet the controversy over his alleged years of exploiting girls and young women. Many of his victims are filing lawsuits against his estate, pursuing the justice they were denied during his life.
Epstein’s ties to Harvard — to which he had pledged $30 million, but actually donated around $6 million — were well known. So was his interest in funding science, a subject for which he had an autodidact’s passion.
His ties to MIT were less well known. And at the Media Lab, an unconventional academic institution that considers itself to be a laboratory designing the future, support from an alleged serial abuser has raised cries of betrayal.
One of the researchers who says he is leaving, Ethan Zuckerman, head of the Center for Civic Media, is one of the organizers of the “Disobedience Award,” which last year honored activists in the #metoo movement. In a post on Medium, he said that he knew he had to leave as soon as he became aware of the scope of Epstein’s involvement in the Lab, including his investment in Ito’s private ventures.
This episode should prompt some real soul-searching at MIT — and especially at the Media Lab, where academic work and entrepreneurship go hand in glove. While Epstein is obviously an extreme example of a bad benefactor, this terrain is rife with the potential for ugly conflicts. Just how rife is now becoming clear.
In an extraordinary move, MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, apologized for taking money from foundations controlled by Epstein. Reif further pledged to commit an equivalent sum to organizations benefiting Epstein’s victims, or other victims of sexual abuse. That’s a good start.
What the future holds for Ito — until last week a highly regarded leader — is unclear. Perhaps he can make a persuasive case that he can lead the kind of change that will weed out bad actors with fat checkbooks but dubious intentions. Or, just as likely, his willingness to associate with Epstein and take his money even after his conviction will prove an insurmountable obstacle to staying.
The success of a grifter like Epstein always raises haunting questions. Among them are why so many brilliant minds couldn’t see past his money and veneer of glamour. Jeffrey Epstein was a walking red flag. But somehow visionaries who claim to see into the future were oblivious to the horror right before their eyes.