Rejecting a Sex Offender's Contributions

Two MIT researchers resign from the Media Lab over its ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

August 22, 2019
 
Ethan Zuckerman

Accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died in federal custody this month, allegedly took a predatory interest in teenage girls. But his involvement with thought leaders -- and academics, in particular -- was apparently more symbiotic: Epstein got to feed his ego and maybe even launder his character by chatting up great minds. And those great minds, or at least their institutions, got his money. Harvard University, in particular, got millions.

Some of those who associated with Epstein have publicly expressed regret about it since Epstein's case came under new renewed scrutiny this year. Science writer Carl Zimmer, for example, said recently that he asked the Epstein-funded thought salon Edge to remove him from its website (Edge also scrubbed the site of references to Epstein). Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker -- who also is affiliated with Edge -- explained why he interpreted the wording of a law for Epstein’s defense team in 2007, when he was first charged with sex crimes. And Harvard geneticist George Church, who continued to meet with Epstein even after his 2008 conviction, attributed the mistake to “nerd tunnel vision.”

But beyond words, there’s been little action regarding Epstein’s entanglement with academe -- until this week. That’s when two faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s esteemed Media Lab said they would step down from their positions over the lab’s ties to Epstein.

In a public post on Medium, Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of the practice, said he'd recently learned that the lab’s director, Joi Ito, had had a business relationship with Epstein and that Epstein invested in companies Ito personally supported. There were also "gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties," Zuckerman said. And so, as "the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab." 

His logic, he said, "was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view." And 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 plans to leave the lab -- or maybe even MIT altogether -- by the end of the coming academic year. 

Following Zuckerman's announcement, J. Nathan Mathias, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the Media Lab, said he, too, was leaving MIT.

Zuckerman declined an interview request Wednesday, saying that he did not intend to go public with his resignation. He'd only done so when The Boston Globe obtained a letter he wrote to past recipients of the lab’s Disobedience Award for rabble-rousers. Last year, those recipients were Me Too leaders.

“I am ashamed of my institution today and starting the hard work of figuring out how to leave the lab while taking care of my students and staff,” he said in the letter, according to The Globe. 

Ito did not respond to a request for comment. He apologized in an open letter last week on the Media Lab website, promising to raise as much money as Epstein gave to the lab and donate it to victims of sex trafficking.

In "all of my interactions with Epstein, I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of," Ito wrote. "That said, I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network."

Matias said in his own Medium post that he’d heard last week for the first time about Joi's business relationship with Epstein and the ties between Epstein and the MIT Media Lab. He also said he'd learned about a deposition that names Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky in relation to further crimes. Specifically, one of Epstein's accusers said in 2016 that Epstein forced her to have sex with Minsky, who died later that year. 

Describing his work as "protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment," Matias said he can't do that with integrity from a "place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.”

MIT has not disclosed how much Epstein donated. It told The Globe that an orb-shaped trophy the Media Lab gave to Epstein and other donors in 2017 was not a Disobedience Award, even though it looked similar to the orbs the Me Too activists received last year.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor in Media Studies at the University of Virginia, said via email that colleges and universities -- especially private ones -- have “become too reliant on the whims of millionaires and billionaires. Too often they set our agendas. Too often we pander to their interests and idiosyncrasies. And too often millionaires and billionaires are terrible people.”

Vaidhyanathan said that Zuckerman is a “moral person,” but that shouldn’t “make him special." Sadly, he said, "it does.”

In a “fairer world,” Zuckerman would lead labs like the one he’s leaving, Vaidhyanathan continued. And if he did, the Media Lab “would never have suffered this embarrassment.” So moral standing in leadership appointments matters, he said, as does appointing women to “high-profile units” such as the Media Lab.

More generally, Vaidhyanathan said that every college and university should audit its donors -- and include “morals clauses” in gift agreements. Donors, should, for example, agree to give up building and program naming rights if they’re credibly accused, charged or convicted of “some moral malfeasance,” like sexual harassment or racism.

Jessica Cantlon, Ronald J. and Mary Ann Zdrojkowski Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, was involved in the sexual misconduct case against her former colleague at the University of Rochester T. Florian Jaeger. Jaeger was found by an independent investigation not to have harassed students and co-workers but rather exercised poor judgment in a number of instances. Many on campus disagreed with that conclusion.

At Rochester, Cantlon said, she observed the “difference between men of conscience and others who would toe the company line at a moral cost.” Several of her male former colleagues stood up for women to support their sexual harassment complaints, faced retaliation and ultimately resigned their jobs, she said. In other words, they “took risks and suffered costs to help make things right for women students and faculty.”

Similarly, at MIT and Harvard, Cantlon said, some “men like Zuckerman refused to meet with Epstein even in 2014 because Epstein is a sex offender who preys on girls and women.” And Harvard and MIT, like all universities, are “supposed to be nourishing to young people,” she said. 

Other male academics, meanwhile, have accepted rides on Epstein's private plane, performed science for him, attended his events, helped with his legal defense and more.

Why the divide? Cantlon said that some academic "men get confused about whether their job is to enrich and educate people,” or whether it’s to “amass money, power and create an empire out of their expertise.”

Men who “bowed to Epstein's power and money" despite knowing who he was pay a price, she said. But that price is really a “debt they pass on to young people who will be hurt by the misogynistic culture they enabled.”

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