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Two researchers plan to leave the MIT Media Lab next spring, in light of revelations that the lab's director had various ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier who died in jail while facing felony charges for sex trafficking of minors.
Last week, director Joi Ito publicly apologized for what he called an "error in judgment" for inviting Epstein to the Media Lab, and for accepting donations from Epstein's foundations to the lab, as well as investments in several of Ito's outside funds. Ito said he also visited several of Epstein's residences, although he said that he "was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of."
Epstein died earlier this month, in an apparent suicide in a New York jail. He was facing accusations of sex trafficking and abusing young girls. Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor. Ito wrote that he met Epstein "through a trusted business friend" at a conference in 2013.
On Tuesday, Ethan Zuckerman, who leads the Center for Civic Media at MIT and teaches at the Media Lab, wrote on his website that the "scale of Joi's involvement" made it clear he had to move his work out of the Media Lab by the end of the academic year. His decision was first reported by The Boston Globe.
"[T]he work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view," Zuckerman wrote. "It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship."
Zuckerman also said that Ito asked him to meet Epstein in 2014, and Zuckerman refused "and urged [Ito] not to meet with him."
MIT, Ito and Zuckerman did not immediately return requests for comment.
After Zuckerman's announcement, another Media Lab researcher, J. Nathan Matias, said he too is leaving.
Matias does research on online abuse and harassment. "I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple," he wrote on the website Medium.
Epstein had other ties to MIT. A nonprofit he once directed made a $150,000 gift to the institute in 2017.
In recently unsealed court documents, one of Epstein's accusers, Virginia Giuffre, alleged that Epstein and his former partner Ghislaine Maxwell told her to have sex with late MIT scientist Marvin Minsky, among others. Minsky was one of the founding members of the MIT Media Lab. He died in 2016.
Epstein also supported many causes and researchers at Harvard University.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mislabeled Matias' affiliation with the Media Lab. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on August 21, 2019.
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