Dear Commons Community,
Two scholars from the MIT Media Lab have announced plans to resign in the wake of revelations that the director of the center, Joi Ito, had deep financial ties with the accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, and J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at MIT and founder of the nonprofit CivilServant, both announced that they would resign in protest at the end of the academic year. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab is reeling from financial revelations last week connecting its director, Joi Ito, to Jeffrey Epstein, the accused child sex trafficker. In the latest fallout, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, announced he would resign in protest at the end of the academic year.
“I am ashamed of my institution today and starting the hard work of figuring out how to leave the Lab.”
“The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view,” he wrote in a Medium post on Tuesday. “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.”
Ito had extensive financial ties to Epstein, whom he met in 2013, five years after the financier was required to register as a sex offender in a controversial plea deal. In 2012 Epstein donated $50,000 to MIT, and he also invested in Ito’s private venture-capital funds. Ito has said that he visited Epstein’s properties numerous times and invited the financier to the Media Lab.
Epstein was found dead earlier this month in a Manhattan correctional facility, where he was awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. A New York City medical examiner declared his death a suicide.
On August 15, Ito issued an apology in which he pledged to raise as much money as Epstein had given to the research center and donate it to nonprofits that support sex-trafficking victims. He also promised to return the money that Epstein invested in his venture-capital funds.
In his Medium post, Zuckerman cited the “scale of Ito’s involvement with Epstein” as the deciding factor in his decision to leave the lab. It is still unclear how much money Epstein donated to the lab or invested in Ito’s private funds, which are oriented toward startups.
The day after Zuckerman’s announcement, J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at MIT and founder of the nonprofit CivilServant, which is housed at the Media Lab, said he, too, would move his work elsewhere.
“As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment,” Matias wrote in his own Medium post. “I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein.”
Both Matias and Zuckerman declined to comment for this article.
Zuckerman, who also holds an appointment as an associate professor of the practice in media arts and sciences at the lab, intends to move his work elsewhere by May 2020. He wrote that he might stay at MIT, but that would depend on “whether the Institute knew about the relationship with Epstein and approved of his gifts.”
Neither MIT nor the Media Lab responded to The Chronicle’s request for comment in time for publication.
CivilServant will move to Cornell University, where Matias was recently hired.
Ito and the Media Lab may have misled the public about funding from Epstein before Ito’s connections to the accused pedophile were revealed by The Boston Globe. In 2015, in response to a news release from Epstein touting his funding of a program at the lab to teach toddlers about computer programming, a spokeswoman for the research center denied that the money was ever received.
The Media Lab, an “antidisciplinary research community” that aims to “connect technology back to the social and the human,” is known for working at the intersection of new technology and social justice. Last year the research center presented three women with its annual Disobedience Award for their work in elevating the #MeToo movement in STEM. The irony was not lost on Zuckerman, who apologized to past recipients of the award after learning about the lab’s ties to Epstein.
“I am ashamed of my institution today and starting the hard work of figuring out how to leave the Lab,” he wrote in a letter obtained by The Boston Globe.
The Media Lab’s connections to Epstein go beyond Ito. Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence and co-founder of the Media Lab who died in 2016, was accused of having sex with one of Epstein’s underage victims on the deceased financier’s private island. Minsky also held two conferences on the island, called Little St. James, where much of Epstein’s child sex trafficking is alleged to have taken place.
Epstein, who once called himself a “science philanthropist,” has a long history of funding scientific initiatives at institutions like MIT and Harvard University, which received more than $6.5 million from Epstein but said in July it has no plans to return the money. Epstein also had personal and financial relationships with some of the world’s foremost scientific thinkers, including the celebrity physicists Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, who retired from Arizona State University in May following sexual-misconduct allegations. On more than one occasion, Epstein consulted with scientists about the possibility of inseminating 20 women at a time with his sperm on his New Mexico ranch in order to spread his DNA.
Ito is not the first prominent academic to face criticism for his relationship with Epstein. On August 5, the renowned Harvard biologist George Church apologized for multiple meetings and phone calls with Epstein after he pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008.
In their Medium posts, Zuckerman and Matias emphasized their love for the Media Lab’s work and community, even as they expressed disgust and disappointment toward its director.
“The MIT Media Lab is a community of creative people who helped me grow into the person I want to be in the world,” Matias wrote. “I am in tears as I write this.”
Zuckerman said it was a “privilege” to work at the Media Lab, but he added that “privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong.”
“I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what is appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been a part of has made terrible errors,” he wrote.
We will hear more about this in higher education circles!