A meeting with Jeffrey Epstein led to a gift — and, now, regrets

Professor Neri Oxman’s lab received $125,000 tied to Jeffrey Epstein. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2014

The MIT Media Lab’s schedule was cleared on a Saturday afternoon in October 2015. There was a special guest and potential donor visiting then-director Joi Ito’s office.

One by one, some of the highest profile professors at the Media Lab trooped in and presented their research, answered questions, and discussed their work with the prospective benefactor: Jeffrey Epstein.

Neri Oxman, a well-known architect and designer, whose work has been featured at the Smithsonian Institution and in the pages of Vogue magazine, said she was among those who spoke. She discussed her research on how art, science, engineering, and design work together and brought small-scale models of her sculptures. Ito and another senior MIT professor were also present.

The day was a success: Oxman’s lab, Mediated Matter, received $125,000 tied to Epstein over the years. And because MIT did not want the disgraced financier to use the gift to help rehabilitate his reputation, Oxman was told it would be kept confidential.

The 2015 meeting offers a window into how the Media Lab was at once concerned about the optics of taking money from Epstein — a convicted sex offender who had by then served a 13-month sentence for soliciting a minor for prostitution — and also tempted by his potential to donate and encourage others to give to the research center.

“This is the first and only time I met Epstein,” Oxman said in a statement. “Joi assured me that Epstein was an approved donor who wished to devote his fortune to science and technology, in part to make amends for wrongs he committed earlier in his life.”

After the meeting, Oxman told the Globe, Ito twice asked her to write notes thanking Epstein for his contributions. She, along with other professors, were invited to dine with Epstein on several occasions, though she said she never attended. And in 2017, Ito requested that her design lab, which often produced donor gifts for the university, send a token of appreciation to Epstein: a grapefruit-sized, 3-D printed marble with a base that lit up. It came with a pair of gloves to avoid getting fingerprints on the surface.

She complied, and asked lab members to mail it to Epstein’s Manhattan address.

In the weeks since Epstein was found dead in the Manhattan jail cell where he was being held on charges of trafficking minors, his connections to MIT and the Media Lab have thrown one of the most elite scientific institutions in the world into turmoil. Ito has resigned. MIT president L. Rafael Reif acknowledged this week that senior MIT leaders signed off on Ito working with Epstein. And the university has hired an outside law firm to investigate how MIT handled Epstein’s contributions.

Individual professors, students, and staff at MIT continue to grapple with how Epstein crept into their orbit and became more involved than most understood.

Among the uneasy questions they say they’re asking themselves: Were they victims? Were they complicit? Did they speak out? Should they have?

Oxman, 43, who is currently on maternity leave, said Ito and some of the brightest minds at MIT seemed to have given their endorsement of Epstein. At the time, she was trying to win tenure in a male-dominated world by showing she could publish significant research, produce enough groundbreaking work, and raise enough money to support the lab’s mission. Oxman became a tenured professor in 2017.

But former students say that Oxman may have been in a better position than most to raise concerns. She was among Ito’s close circle at the Media Lab, she was well-respected by top MIT leaders, and she traveled to Europe and across the country to showcase her work. (A solo show of her pieces will soon be featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

And at least one student raised concerns to Oxman about Epstein’s ties to the lab in 2017.

That’s when Oxman asked those in her lab to prepare and send a gift to Epstein, according to documents shared by an MIT employee.

A graduate student, seeing Epstein’s name, flagged him as a potential problem.

“Have you read the articles about this Jeff Epstein? He seems pretty shady. . . . Just wanted to point it out in case you weren’t aware,” the student wrote to Oxman, who was in Barcelona at the time.

“Joi and I are aware,” Oxman wrote back. “I’ll share more in person when I return.”

In the e-mail string, Oxman added that “Jeff E.” should always be “confidential.”

But she also told the graduate student “do not worry, we are *not* sponsored by him, per my direction,” according to the e-mail.

Oxman said that she met with and spoke with the student who raised concerns, and she believed that the student was comfortable with sending the gift.

In Oxman’s statement to the Globe, she said MIT required that Epstein’s gifts to her lab be kept confidential, “so as to not enhance his reputation by association with MIT, and with the understanding that he would not be considered a sponsor of our group’s research or have any involvement in how the funds were spent.”

But the 2017 Epstein episode stuck with the student. After Ito apologized in August for taking money from Epstein for the Media Lab and his own venture funds, the student sent a lab-wide apology of her own. She said she had raised the issue of Epstein’s reputation but still felt complicit.

“Accepting gifts is different than having students make and give them,” the student wrote on Aug. 16 in an e-mail shared with the Globe. “I knew it was wrong. I tried to speak up, but I was more concerned about getting a degree and staying in favor than with what is right. I let myself down as much as anyone. I am so, so sorry.”

In recent weeks, journalists have asked questions of MIT about Oxman’s lab sending the gift to Epstein.

According to e-mails obtained by the Globe, Ito asked Oxman how she wanted to respond to media questions. Oxman’s husband, William Ackman, a hedge-fund billionaire, in a phone conversation and e-mail to Ito raised concerns about Oxman’s name being tied to the Epstein situation, according to multiple people aware of the situation.

“I don’t want to see her forced into a position where to protect her name she is required to be transparent about everything that took place at MIT with Epstein,” Ackman wrote in the e-mail. “Once her name appears in the press, she will face a barrage of questions, and anything other than perfect transparency to the media will make her look like she is hiding something. This has regretfully become a witch hunt.”

Ackman’s concerns eventually reached the graduate student, whom Media Lab officials advised to talk to the university’s lawyers.

The student, who declined to provide her name over concerns about the long term consequences, said her experience in recent weeks has left her shaken.

“It’s not just Joi, or Neri, that made a mistake. It was all of us, down to the students like me who knew,” she said in a statement.

In her statement on Friday, Oxman said, “I regret having received funds from Epstein, and deeply apologize to my students for their inadvertent involvement in this mess.”

MIT officials said the university has hired law firm Goodwin Procter to gather the facts around MIT’s relationship with Epstein.

“Professor Oxman is encouraged to share her concerns with Goodwin Procter,” said Steve Bradt, a spokesman for MIT.

Ito declined to comment.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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