MIT Media Lab Struggles With Jeffrey Epstein Connection

Thom Weidlich 09.19.19


The MIT Media Lab is embroiled in a crisis over taking donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The elite research institution has botched its response, having to issue a series of statements because it didn’t start with a full disclosure.

The latest bombshell came Friday, Sept. 6, when Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that the MIT Media Lab “had a deeper fund-raising relationship with Epstein than it has previously acknowledged, and it attempted to conceal the extent of its contacts with him.”

MIT had disclosed it got about $800,000 from Epstein, but Farrow revealed he also acted as middleman for donations from other rich patrons, including $5.5 million from financier Leon Black and $2 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Because of Epstein’s conviction, he was listed as “disqualified” in MIT’s donor database. Therefore, the school hid his involvement with the gifts. In other words, MIT was a willing dupe in Epstein’s effort to money-launder his reputation.

Epstein (pictured, in mug shot) was convicted in 2008 of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution. He was arrested again in July of this year, and was being held in custody when he was found dead on Aug. 10, an apparent suicide.

MIT’s public statements about its relationship with Epstein had trickled out, but the New Yorker article opened the spigot. In a piece headlined “The Moral Rot of the MIT Media Lab,” Justin Peters of Slate called the situation “an existential crisis” for the institution.

‘Breathtakingly Incomplete’

Joi Ito, the lab’s director since 2011, issued a public apology letter in mid August. Ito laid out his relationship with Epstein, which he said began in 2013 — five years after his conviction. He admitted that “over the years” Epstein gave money to both the lab and Ito’s own investment vehicles. Slate’s Peters wrote that, in light of Farrow’s reporting, that disclosure “now seems breathtakingly incomplete.” Ito’s statement led to calls for him to step down.

On Aug. 22, MIT President L. Rafael Reif sent out a schoolwide apology email. Reif got more specific with the numbers. Over 20 years, MIT received $800,000 from foundations Epstein controlled, going either to the lab or a professor, Seth Lloyd (who wrote his own apology on Medium). Reif said he asked the school’s provost to put together a group to examine the gifts and how MIT could improve its systems.

According to Farrow, on Sept. 4 Ito disclosed he had also received from Epstein $525,000 that went to the lab and $1.2 million for Ito’s investment funds.

Then on Sept. 6, the New Yorker article appeared.

The next day, President Reif issued a statement noting the “deeply disturbing allegations” in the piece. He said he asked MIT’s general counsel to hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation. He also announced that Ito had resigned.

Two days later, on Sept. 9, Reif released another statement recognizing the “tremendous sense of pain, sadness and disappointment” at the school over the matter. He revealed that MIT hired Boston-based law-firm giant Goodwin Procter to handle the probe.

‘Preliminary Fact-Finding’

On Thursday, Sept. 12, Reif put out another statement disclosing “preliminary fact-finding” in the investigation — namely that in August 2012, shortly before he arrived at MIT, Reif himself signed a letter thanking Epstein for a gift (Reif said he didn’t recall doing that). He also disclosed that members of his staff knew Epstein was involved in fundraising for the school, which they had told Ito not to publicize.

We did not see through the limited facts we had, and we did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offenses or the harm to his young victims.

–L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT

“I am aware that we could and should have asked more questions about Jeffrey Epstein and about his interactions with Joi [Ito],” Reif wrote. “We did not see through the limited facts we had, and we did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offenses or the harm to his young victims.”

Yesterday, faculty and staff reportedly wrote to Reif demanding to know more about Epstein’s charitable giving, and Reif, in addressing a faculty meeting, admitted his statements have been “maddening — a drip-drip-drip of information.” But, he said, he was responding to the facts that he knew at the time.

Farrow’s article discusses several instances in which lab staff expressed concerns about Epstein, and how he might negatively affect the lab’s reputation. So, the school had warnings. It just didn’t listen to them.

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