MIT’s Media Lab Faces A Year Overshadowed By Epstein And Ethics 

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A woman walks through the entrance of the MIT Media Lab. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman walks through the entrance of the MIT Media Lab. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Weeks after its director admitted to ties with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, one of America's trailblazing centers for research is divided against itself.

Last month, Joichi Ito — director of MIT's Media Lab — admitted to accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein, the financier convicted of soliciting prostitution from a minor and accused of trafficking underage girls for sex.

Epstein contributed to the Media Lab and to investment funds under Ito's control, and Ito visited "several" of the residences. (On Aug. 10, Epstein died by suicide in his Manhattan jail cell, where he was awaiting trial on new federal sex trafficking charges.)

After Ito's revelation, two researchers announced they were leaving their Media Lab posts in protest of the ties. Last week, others at the lab and in the surrounding community rallied to Ito's defense. Still others — including a number of students and alumni who chose not to go on the record for fear of professional consequences -- said Ito's Epstein ties reveal a wider blind spot around misogyny and abuse, and that he has lost moral authority as a result of the revelations.

Since its inception, the Media Lab has had a mystique of brilliant interdisciplinary research leading to path-breaking technology. Thirty years ago, the technologist and writer Stewart Brand wrote a book that glossed the Lab's mission as "Inventing The Future."

Since then, the lab's cachet has only grown. Rodney Mullen, himself a star in the world of pro skateboarding, said he was frequently "astounded" on a six-week fellowship at the lab this summer. The place lived up to the hype: its members were inventing the future: of prosthetic limbs, of textiles, of opera and urban planning.

And Mullen said students and faculty he met were themselves inspired by Ito. They'd bring him up unsolicited, Mullen said: “the type of leader he was, how spot-on he was in his vision of tech ... His relatability and clear genius had moved them."

So Ito's disclosure last month hit hard.

And it's still hurting. The MIT Technology Review reported that at an all-hands meeting at the lab on Wednesday, Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte said that — if he could do it all again — he would still encourage Ito to accept Epstein's money.

One person sobbed. Another told Negroponte to shut up. And many more walked out. A source confirmed that account to WBUR, but declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution.

At that meeting, Ito apologized once more and pledged to fix things.

A Lapse In 'Awareness'

At the top of the tech world, Ito has a reputation for sincere concern for diversity, privacy and democracy. Just last spring, he taught a course on cultivating ethical awareness. So this struck even his allies as an astonishing lapse.

Judith Donath, who both studied and taught at the lab, said, "I think it's quite unfortunate that he did this."

Nevertheless, Donath joined almost 240 others in signing a letter that asked Ito to stay on as director. She said she found the Media Lab to be welcoming in the 1990s and 2000s — but that that wasn't everyone's experience: "Certainly there was not a lot of talk of race and inclusion earlier. I know there were other women students who found it really off-putting."

Ito, who didn't respond to requests for comment, came to run the lab in 2011 without earning a college degree. Still, many thought of him — a far-sighted, eclectic technologist and thinker — as a perfect match for the lab.

He was also an investor who threw himself into fundraising. At a lab that does not charge tuition and gives its students research stipends, it's a big part of the job. Walter Bender, who served as director from 2000 to 2006, called it a "big responsibility."

Bender said that he personally believes some money is too contaminated to take. But that there's no agreement on where the line should lie. In recent years, MIT has accepted gifts from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and from fossil fuel companies.

Donath is particularly troubled by gifts from the late industrialist (and MIT alumnus) David Koch, who, with his brother Charles, fought to muddy the national understanding of human-caused climate change.

Those gifts, Donath argued, may not have been worth the collateral damage: "Having [the name 'Koch'] plastered all over the top scientific institution lends them a credence that they then use to do extremely destructive things, including to the believability of scientists."

What's Next

Ito's supporters believe that he is best equipped to deal with the current crisis — one, they admit, he played a large part in creating. For proof of his goodwill, they point to the fact that the lab has become more inclusive during his eight years in charge.

But now parts of the current and more diverse student body are calling for Ito's ouster.

Last week in MIT's student newspaper, The Tech, Arwa Mboya — a Kenyan-born graduate student at the lab -- described Ito as part of a global problem, in which powerful people protect their privilege "at the expense of women's bodies and lives." For that reason, Mboya argued, he has to go.

Against Mboya are arrayed alumni and faculty, many of them older and better established, who profess belief in a certain kind of transformation: that just as MIT can redeem bad money by putting it to good use, Ito can use the Epstein scandal to shape a better future for the lab.

On both sides of that rift, there is apparent agreement on one thing: this story is about much more than Joi Ito. Epstein's first contributions to lab-connected scholars date back as early as 2002, and the institute's president, Rafael Reif, wrote that the broader institute's Epstein ties go back 20 years and total $800,000. He supported MIT physicist Seth Lloyd, who has also apologized publicly. And over a decade or more, Epstein formed connections with dozens to America's top scholars and scientists — most of them men.

Reif has promised to donate a sum equal to all of Epstein's gifts to charities supporting victims of sexual abuse. He's also started a review of MIT's practices around private gifts. Meanwhile, administrators at Harvard — which accepted at least $6.5 million from Epstein -- have made no such commitments.

In that context, some are arguing that Ito's resignation would set a bad precedent — where honesty is punished and silence is rewarded. Among them is the physician Elizabeth Pettit, another director's fellow at the Media Lab this year: "What is gonna happen if [leaders] can't be accountable, and transparent, and vulnerable? We're gonna end up with liars and people that want to dupe the system even more."

It's a painful moment at the Media Lab, predicated as it is on the exchange of ideas and the conjuring of a better future. There is a sense of fracture in the here and now, and a want of people — like many judged Ito to be  -- who have the authority and compassion to heal the divide.

This segment aired on September 6, 2019.


Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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