There’s a storm brewing in Cambridge, Mass., over substantial donations from the felon Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a jail cell last month as he faced federal charges for sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York.
Epstein gave MIT’s Media Lab half a million dollars — and he gave the lab’s director, Joi Ito, more than twice that: $1.2 million for Ito’s own investment funds.
Ito took the money years after Epstein became a felon in 2008 for soliciting prostitution from a minor.
And he socialized with Epstein, visiting him at his Caribbean home and elsewhere. Ito has apologized profusely in recent days. And so has MIT President Rafael Reif.
But that’s not nearly enough. MIT should send a strong message by showing Ito the door of the Media Lab, which specializes in technology with a social-justice bent and prides itself on exploring ethical questions.
The ethics here are — or should be — clear-cut.
“Universities should know better than to be drive-through reputational laundromats,” said journalist and author Anand Giridharadas, who has been associated with the Media Lab but decided to step away from an advisory role this week in protest of how the situation is being handled.
Ito was penitent in a meeting this week meant to air grievances and begin to heal disagreements, according to a New York Times report. He said “that he had visited Mr. Epstein’s Caribbean island twice to raise money, which he has pledged to return or donate to causes that support sex-trafficking victims. He also acknowledged that he had ‘screwed up’ by accepting the money, but that he had done so after a review by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and consultation with advisers.”
These measures don’t acknowledge the scope of what happened, Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” told me by phone.
“Joi not only pursued Epstein’s money and this kind of cash-for-redemption trade, but then personally benefited from MIT’s misbegotten relationship,” he said. “Even the corruption has corruption.”
While it may seem an obscure subject to those outside the East Coast academic and media spheres, the Media Lab episode raises broad questions about how worthy institutions — museums, schools and think tanks, to name a few — raise money.
The names Koch and Sackler might come to mind.
A Washington Post article this week explored Epstein’s philanthropic donations, including $6.5 million to Harvard made before his 2008 conviction, and the larger questions that arise in philanthropic gifts: “The financier’s donations supported important research and helped scientists work toward discoveries, but they also provided a veneer of credibility to a convicted sex offender.”
There are plenty of gray areas and ethical quandaries in this realm.
But Ito’s continuing to direct the Media Lab shouldn’t be one of them.
Consider the words of Arwa Mboya, a graduate student in the Media Lab, writing last month in the Tech, where she urged Ito to step down.
Describing herself as a young black woman from Kenya who is “on a very low rung” of the power ladder, she made a strong case that “minimally positive behavior” — apologies and returning money — is not enough.
“Why are we so ready to forgive and accept an apology that does not take true responsibility for the role played in the harm of these young women? Why is there no accountability for men with power? Why should I be concerned about Ito keeping his job when he was not concerned about the people that Epstein was hurting?”
MIT has not moved to distance itself from Ito. Nor, so far, have the powerful boards on which Ito serves, including the New York Times, the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.
The university is investigating what happened, but Provost Martin Schmidt has described that effort, according to the Times, as an attempt to “identify lessons for the future” rather than “an investigation of any particular individual.”
That sounds toothless — and far too typical of the “we’ll look into it” school of dealing with offenses by the powerful against the powerless, as the #MeToo movement has taught us. (The Media Lab, strange to say, identified several leaders of the movement as the winners of its 2018 Disobedience Award.)
Ito calls himself an ethicist as well as a tech entrepreneur.
If so, he ought to be able to reason through this situation and realize that taking more than a million dollars from a known sexual predator should disqualify him from continuing to lead the organization which benefited from the money. Especially when his own private ventures benefited even more.
If Ito can’t figure that out, MIT ought to do it for him.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan