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M.I.T. Media Lab in Crisis After 2 Scholars Vow to Leave Over Epstein Ties

The M.I.T. Media Lab, an elite research center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students study topics as varied as technologically advanced prosthetic limbs and using the internet via head-mounted sensors, is in turmoil. Last week, it was revealed that its director, Joichi Ito, had ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who had given money to the lab and to Mr. Ito’s own venture capital funds.

Two educators affiliated with the lab, the associate professor Ethan Zuckerman and the visiting scholar J. Nathan Matias, said this week that they would end their relationships with the institute over its ties to Mr. Epstein, the New York financier who was facing federal sex-trafficking charges when he killed himself this month.

The planned departures follow an apology by Mr. Ito posted on the M.I.T. Media Lab website on Aug. 15. “In my fund-raising efforts for M.I.T. Media Lab, I invited him to the lab and visited several of his residences,” Mr. Ito said in the statement. “I want you to know that 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.”

Mr. Ito, who is also a member of The New York Times Company board, added that he had taken money from Mr. Epstein for his own investment funds. He did not disclose in the apology how much money he had accepted from Mr. Epstein for the Media Lab or for his own funds, and Mr. Ito and M.I.T. declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Epstein was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan on Aug. 10 after hanging himself. He had long faced accusations that he had sexually abused girls. He pleaded guilty in 2008 in Florida to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor. Mr. Ito, in his apology, said that he had met Mr. Epstein in 2013 “through a trusted business friend.”

Mr. Epstein may have had ties to people in leadership positions at the lab before meeting Mr. Ito. In a deposition unsealed this month, a woman testified that, as a teenager, she was told to have sex with Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, on Mr. Epstein’s island in the Virgin Islands. Mr. Minsky, who died in 2016 at 88, was a founder of the Media Lab in the mid-1980s.

There is evidence of other connections between Mr. Epstein and M.I.T. Financial disclosure records show that he made two separate donations to M.I.T. through his charitable foundations. One, made in 2017 from Gratitude America, was for $150,000. The other, from Epstein Interests, in 2012, was for $50,000. It was not clear if any of that money went to the Media Lab. Mr. Ito and M.I.T. declined to comment for this article.

M.I.T., a private university in Cambridge, Mass., that has been the alma mater for more than 90 Nobel laureates, tried to distance itself from Mr. Epstein in 2015, when it denied to Reuters that the Media Lab had accepted money from the financier after a claim by Mr. Epstein that he had provided “critical funding” to a program to teach computer programming to toddlers.

In a 2005 doctoral dissertation by an M.I.T. graduate student, the student thanked Mr. Epstein as one of many “sponsors” of the Media Lab, “for supporting our work.” The author of that dissertation died in 2006. The technology writer Evgeny Morozov surfaced it on Twitter.

The Media Lab has an annual operating budget of roughly $75 million, according to its website. Much of that money is supplied by dozens of private companies, including Exxon, Lego and Toshiba. It has 30 professors and 100 other staff members.

In a segment about the Media Lab that aired Aug. 4 on the CBS News show “60 Minutes,” Mr. Ito described how he went about his job: “So we have 90 companies that pay us a membership fee to join the consortium, and then, because it’s all coming into one pot, I can distribute the funds to our faculty and students, and they don’t have to write grant proposals. They don’t have to ask for permission. They just make things.”

Mr. Zuckerman, the associate professor, wrote in a post on Medium on Tuesday that he planned to sever his ties to the research center. He is the director of the M.I.T. Center for Civic Media, a collaboration between the Media Lab and the university’s comparative media studies program.

ImageCreditErik Jacobs for The New York Times

In the post, he described having spoken to Mr. Ito about Mr. Minsky and the Media Lab’s connections to Mr. Epstein on Aug. 9, adding that he had learned that Mr. Epstein had visited the lab, and that Mr. Ito had visited Mr. Epstein’s properties. On Aug. 10, Mr. Zuckerman wrote, he told Mr. Ito that he planned to stop working at the lab by May 2020, the end of the academic year.

“My logic was simple: The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view,” Mr. Zuckerman wrote. “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.”

Mr. Zuckerman wrote that his conversation with Mr. Ito this month about Mr. Epstein was the first time the two had talked about Mr. Epstein since 2014. At that time, Mr. Zuckerman wrote, he declined an invitation from Mr. Ito to meet with the financier and he urged Mr. Ito to do the same.

In a separate Medium post on Wednesday, Mr. Matias said that he, too, would be splitting with the lab after the academic year. In his role as a visiting scholar over the past two years, Mr. Matias worked on a project that involved research on protecting women and other vulnerable people from online abuse and harassment, he wrote.

“I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein,” he wrote. “It’s that simple.”

Mr. Matias wrote that he had not been aware of Mr. Ito’s ties to Mr. Epstein and that none of Mr. Epstein’s money was funneled to him or his project.

Reaction among Media Lab students seemed mixed. Arwa Mboya, a member of the Center for Civic Media, the group run by Mr. Zuckerman, said of Mr. Ito, “We need to set an example for the future, and just forgiving him because he’s super-talented is hypocritical.”

While she praised the lab’s director for “thinking outside the box,” she criticized his apology for not directly addressing whether or not he knew of the allegations against Mr. Epstein before he said the two had met in 2013. She was also critical of the school’s denial to Reuters that the Media Lab had accepted his money.

Sharifa Alghowinem, a computer scientist from Saudi Arabia who said she had recently begun a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Media Lab, said she believed it was not the research center’s responsibility to investigate the source of its donations, but only to put the money to use in the advancement of science.

“As long as we are doing well with this money, we shouldn’t care,” she said.

Mr. Ito, who grew up in Tokyo and the United States, was an unorthodox choice for the job of Media Lab director, a post he took in 2011 after it was offered to him by one of the center’s founders, Nicholas Negroponte, an architect, digital pioneer and longtime M.I.T. faculty member.

Known for his knack for networking, Mr. Ito did not consider himself an academic, having dropped out of college at least twice, once as an engineering student at Tufts University, and then as a physics student at the University of Chicago. He also left a graduate program at Hitotsubashi University in Japan.

The Media Lab was at a crossroads when he took over. It had struggled to raise funds, particularly following the recession that began in 2007, a problem that Mr. Ito worked to solve.

Mr. Ito earned a Ph.D. in 2018 from Keio University in Japan, a degree he described in a blog post as “‘a Thesis PhD,’ which is a less common type of PhD that you don’t see very much in the U.S.” In his dissertation, he described his success at the Media Lab and included an annual-report-style chart showing expenses and revenues in the years he had run it.

He wondered if the Media Lab had grown too big, writing, “One significant question for me is, ‘What is the right size for the Media Lab?’ How do we decide what to do and what not to do? How do we increase quality over quantity? How do we determine quality?”


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