MIT Media Lab director quits over ‘hidden ties to Epstein’

Joi Ito alleged to have made extensive efforts to hide millions of dollars donated by sexual abuser

September 9, 2019
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source: iStock

The head of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joi Ito, resigned after a report described him as having deliberately hidden extensive contributions made by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The report in The New Yorker said the Media Lab, renowned for its interdisciplinary technology research, took millions of dollars from Epstein even while MIT listed the late financier as a disqualified donor.

The lab’s practice of hiding the relationship was so established, The New Yorker found, that staff in Professor Ito’s office referred to Mr Epstein as Voldemort or “he who must not be named”.

Epstein, a high-profile investor and convicted sex offender with ties to leading political figures and celebrities in the US and abroad, died last month in jail while awaiting prosecution on sex trafficking charges.

Professor Ito offered his resignation just a day after The New Yorker article was published, saying he already had given “the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks”.

MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, announcing the resignation in an open letter to the MIT community, called The New Yorker accusations “extremely serious” and said that they “demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation”.

Epstein had a net worth estimated at $500 million (£400 million) and a powerful network of friends that included US president Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton, former US Senate majority leader George Mitchell and the Duke of York.

Several universities also worked with him despite his 2008 guilty plea to a charge of procuring a teenaged girl for prostitution. Prominent academic figures taking Epstein’s money include George Church, the celebrated Harvard University biologist, who blamed “nerd tunnel vision” for his failure to resist.

Epstein’s record of sexual abuse regained public attention last year when The Miami Herald described a federal prosecutor in Florida, Alexander Acosta, as having arranged a no-prosecution agreement and lenient terms with Epstein despite more than 60 women saying they were victims of his abuse. Mr Acosta subsequently resigned from his job as US secretary of labor.

Prior to The New Yorker article, MIT said it had received about $800,000 in donations from Epstein over two decades, to either the MIT Media Lab or Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering. In a written apology, Professor Lloyd said that he hurt Epstein’s victims by helping to burnish his reputation. “These were professional as well as moral failings,” Professor Lloyd wrote.

Then last week, The New York Times reported, Professor Ito admitted to receiving $1.7 million from Epstein, mostly for his own investments. The New Yorker, in its article, said Epstein played key roles in helping the MIT Media Lab win donations of $5.5 million from investor Leon Black and $2 million from philanthropist Bill Gates.

Professor Ito took steps to hide a personal meeting with Epstein and marked his contributions as anonymous, The New Yorker said, citing dozens of pages of e-mails and other documents it obtained.

Along with resigning as director of the MIT Media Lab, Professor Ito relinquished a visiting professorship at Harvard and quit the boards of the MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The New York Times Company, the Times said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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