MIT Media Lab Funding Scandal Could Have Far-Reaching Impacts

Higher Education

MIT Media Lab Funding Scandal Could Have Far-Reaching Impacts

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 11, 2019

MIT Media Lab Funding Scandal Could Have Far-Reaching Impacts
The MIT Media Lab (above) is in the middle of a very public debate about ethics and fundraising.

As the MIT Media Lab continues a reckoning over its ties to Jeffrey Epstein, tech and innovation leaders at other campuses say the scandal will likely have ripple effects across higher education.

The lab’s director, Joi Ito, resigned over the weekend, just hours after The New Yorker published a bombshell story about how Ito and the Media Lab had taken more money from Epstein than previously disclosed, and that the the lab sought to keep the donations secret by marking them anonymous.

The saga has been unfolding as a highly public soap opera since late August, when a Media Lab professor, Ethan Zuckerman, decided to cut ties with the Media Lab in protest after he learned that the lab had accepted gifts from Epstein and allowed the disgraced financier to visit the lab even after Epstein had been convicted of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution. Epstein died in federal prison in an apparent suicide last month while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges.

Just yesterday, a Boston Globe report found that top MIT officials also knew of the Media Lab’s close ties with Epstein, even though the university had classified Epstein as “disqualified” as a donor. This week the university’s president, Rafael Reif, sent an email to the MIT community announcing that the institute has hired an outside law firm, Goodwin Procter, to investigate Jeffrey Epstein’s interactions with MIT.

Just as the Varsity Blues admissions scandal raised broader questions about the fairness of the admissions process at selective colleges, the Media Lab scandal is sparking fresh scrutiny of the world of college fundraising, some officials say.

“I think this is not just about MIT—there are more shoes to drop,” says Michael Berman, chief innovation officer and deputy CIO at the California State University’s chancellor's office. “I expect we’re going to find a more pervasive culture of corruption around fundraising that’s going to be pretty disturbing.”

The questionable practices by the Media Lab will likely confirm the belief among many professors that colleges should remain cloistered from the world of business and finance, says Kristen Eshleman, director of digital learning, research and design at Davidson College. “It exposes that raw nerve that a lot of faculty and a lot of people have,” she adds. “For faculty who are already skeptical, it makes them dig in even deeper.”

Eshleman expects that it will make her job harder, since she has proposed that her college work on a project that involves private companies and a venture firm. “It makes it that much more difficult to do public-private partnerships when you have bad people doing bad things,” she says.

Colleges should be wary, and extra careful, when partnering with the corporate sector, where values and goals may be different, she insists. “It’s always riskier,” she says. But she believes there are ethical ways to structure the relationships and appropriate partners to work with.

“This just makes it harder—thanks, MIT,” she adds, with a sigh.

In the spirit of disclosure, I should note that I have audited classes at the Media Lab while I was a journalism fellow at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center on Internet and Society five years ago. One of the Media Lab classes I took was with Ethan Zuckerman. I also worked on an informal research project with a doctoral student at the lab. The irony of this scandal is that all of the people I met and interacted seemed driven to create technology that would make a difference in people’s lives and address serious societal issues in a positive way. Which may be one reason the revelations about ties to Epstein are being met with such passion.

An Unusual Funding Model

While the Media Lab has long enjoyed a kind of celebrity status, in its earliest days it drew criticism for its unusual funding model, which has turned it into a kind of clubhouse where companies who support the lab can visit and interact with students and professors.

The Media Lab has 80 corporate “members” who contribute a subscription fee that pays the majority of the bills for the operation, which has an annual budget of about $75-million. Those corporate members “range from electronics to entertainment, fashion to health care, and toys to telecommunications,” according to the lab’s website.

The member companies get little or no say in what research is conducted, but they are allowed to send representatives to visit the lab and talk to students and researchers about tech trends and get early access to research findings.

Those interactions with business leaders have apparently brought occasional tension within the lab. A 2015 email to the Media Lab community by Joi Ito notes reports of improper conduct by visiting business representatives.

“At last week's Lab Diversity Committee meeting we discussed the fact that some representatives of member companies, on occasion, have acted in a sexist, racist, or culturally insensitive manner with our students,” the email read. It went on to say that anyone experiencing such conduct should report it to officials immediately. “This behavior will not be tolerated. Period,” the email concluded. That email was one of many released to reporters this week by a former Media Lab staff member via the legal nonprofit Whistleblower Aid. The same batch of emails revealed that officials went to great lengths to make sure gifts from Epstein were kept anonymous.

Epstein visited the Media Lab that year, according to The New Yorker article, though staff were instructed to make sure that Zuckerman—who raised objections to the relationship back in 2013—be kept away from any glass-walled office where Epstein was meeting with people, and the visit was listed as simply as a “V.I.P. visit” on the official calendar.

Joi Ito was apparently conflicted about whether or not to accept money from Epstein, and turned to colleagues for advice on how to handle the situation. One friend he consulted was Lawrence Lessig, a prominent Harvard Law School professor, according to a Medium post by Lessig this week. The professor argued that if Ito were to take money from Epstein, the only way to do so ethically was to do it anonymously, so that the donation would not “whitewash” the disgraced financier’s reputation.

“Since time immemorial, there have been people or families keen to wash away the stains of blood money. Or at least, to burnish the ambiguity of their reputation by leveraging the brand of great universities,” he wrote, citing the Rockefeller and Carnegie families. “I think that universities should not be the launderers of reputation. I think that they should not accept blood money. Or more precisely, I believe that if they are going to accept blood money ... or the money from people convicted of a crime... they should only ever accept that money anonymously.”

In his Medium post, Lessig goes on to say that he ended up giving his friend the wrong kind of advice. “I am ashamed—ashamed—that I did not do for my friend the one thing I was uniquely qualified to do: I am ashamed that I did not let him see just how hurtful it was to imagine slime like Epstein living within the walls of MIT, even if hidden by promises of anonymity.”

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