The founder of MIT’s Media Lab has offered a full-throated defense of director Joi Ito, whose decision to accept money from the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein has roiled the research center.
Nicholas Negroponte said that, at the time, he backed Ito’s decision to take the money, based on what he knew then about Epstein, and would do so still.
Negroponte, who continues to be a powerful fixture at the lab, which he helped create in 1985, offered his endorsement of Ito at a meeting Tuesday afternoon at which staff, faculty, students, and researchers gathered for the first time since the institution’s extensive ties to Epstein were revealed.
In an e-mail to the Globe sent after the meeting, Negroponte said he told Ito that “he should” take Epstein’s contribution, and “I would say that again based on what we knew at the time.”
“I wanted somebody to speak up for the incredible job [Ito] has done,” Negroponte said. “It is hard work, day after day, and he has done very well.”
Last month, Ito acknowledged that he had extensive personal and professional ties to Epstein, who committed suicide in prison in New York City Aug. 10 while facing federal charges of sex trafficking of underage girls.
In his public apology, Ito said he had traveled to Epstein’s homes and accepted money from him for both the research center and for Ito’s own investments in tech startups. Ito said he first met Epstein in 2013, five years after Epstein had pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution and served a year in jail.
Ito has said that he would raise an equivalent amount to what Epstein gave to the Media Lab and donate it to nonprofits that work with survivors of human trafficking. He also promised to return the money Epstein had invested in his funds.
It is unclear how much money went to the Media Lab and Ito’s personal ventures. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said that it received $800,000 from Epstein over two decades.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif has said that the university will form a group to look into “the facts around the Epstein donations and identify any lessons for the future, to review our current processes and to advise me on appropriate ways we might improve them.”
After Ito’s revelations, a well-known professor and a visiting scholar both announced they will quit the lab in protest. Students at the lab have demanded a fuller accounting of Ito’s relationship with Epstein.
At least one graduate student and several outside critics have called on Ito to resign. But more than 200 students, faculty, alumni, and other Ito supporters have signed a petition backing Ito and his leadership.
Many others at the Media Lab, though, have felt conflicted about Ito’s ties to Epstein.
Scientists at several colleges and universities, including Harvard, have been wrestling with their Epstein links. Epstein, who considered himself a science philanthropist, surrounded himself with some of the country’s leading researchers. He flew them to his island and gave them financial support. Many thanked him in their published papers.
Negroponte said his relationship with Epstein dated back to the 1990s. He twice visited the financier’s home in New York City, alone, and flew once on his private plane, accompanied by a well-known literary agent.
When the Media Lab and Ito accepted Epstein’s money, Negroponte thought the financier had reformed, he said.
“We all knew he went to jail for soliciting underage prostitution,” Negroponte said. “But we thought he served his term and repented. I even discussed this new leaf with him.”
The more recent disclosures that he was involved in sex trafficking of dozens of minors were surprising, Negroponte said.
In hindsight, “Yes, we are embarrassed and regret taking his money,” Negroponte said.
Negroponte said screening individual donors can be difficult. When he led the Media Lab for 20 years, he met with half a dozen donors in a week, he said.
“The first ironclad standard is whether the money is legally earned,” Negroponte said. When screening individuals, it can be a slippery slope, he added.
“Epstein is an extreme case. But then do you take Koch money? Do you take Huawei money? And on and on?” Negroponte said.