CAMBRIDGE — The resignation of the head of the MIT Media Lab has prompted soul-searching on the campus, as students and staff consider broad questions around the sources of university funding.
Joi Ito, the Media Lab’s director since 2011, resigned on Saturday shortly after the publication of an explosive report in The New Yorker that he had hidden the full extent of the lab’s ties with convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein.
On Monday, junior Prateek Kalakuntla said the allegations have made him question the funding behind his own biology research and the ethical standards around accepting donations.
“It makes you wonder what the value of getting funding from sources whose money may be tainted is, and whether you can qualify that by saying that this money is going toward a good cause,” he said. “Is that a good enough reason to take the money?”
Cynthia X. Hua, a first-year graduate student at the Media Lab, said that while there should be scrutiny of Ito’s actions, it is important to consider broader problems, such as the economic structures that allow people to become billionaires and wield so much power.
“It doesn’t just need to be a focus on what Joi did or when,” Hua said. “I don’t mean to absolve Joi of blame, but I don’t want us to get tunnel vision on what one man did when we could be doing more for the bigger problem.”
“Epstein’s not the first time and MIT’s not the first university. It’s prevalent across universities and museums,” Hua added. “It’s become so normalized to be dependent on super-donors for intellectual, cultural, and scientific efforts.”
Vivian Siegel, a biology lecturer at MIT, said she was shocked that Ito had not fully disclosed his ties to Epstein, but was wary of vilifying him.
“It speaks to how hard it is to fund certain types of research,” she said. “More and more people are going after philanthropy, because we can’t get that money from the government.”
Siegel said she would like to think she would have rejected Epstein’s money, but many organization’s donor rolls include people with questionable backgrounds.
“People make challenging choices all the time. This building is Koch-funded,” she said, standing across from the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “These amazing things that happen at MIT don’t happen for free.”
Several undergraduate students on campus said they had not heard of Ito or did not know enough about the case to share an opinion. Mitchell Guillaume, a senior, said that many of his classmates are “not super political.”
“We’re kind of in a bubble,” he said, noting that students are gearing up for classes and an upcoming career fair. “Sometimes we as students are not as connected with the outside world as we should be.”
Guillaume said he has benefited from the opportunities MIT offers and that the revelations have made him think more about the money that made those opportunities possible.
“MIT has a lot of money, but that all comes from somewhere — and you need to think about where it comes from,” he said.