Director of MIT’s Media Lab Resigns over Money Ties

10 September, 2019

Some famous universities are dealing with reports about their financial ties to businessman and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, has ordered an independent investigation into financing of MIT's Media Lab. The order comes after the head of the laboratory resigned over its ties to Epstein.

Separately, other universities that accepted his money say they have no plans to return the donations.

The issue of questionable donations has sent shockwaves through the world of education. It shows the problems educators face as they decide whether to accept money from people accused of wrongdoing.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein appears in a photograph taken for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services' sex offender registry March 28, 2017 and obtained by Reuters July 10, 2019.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein appears in a photograph taken for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services' sex offender registry March 28, 2017 and obtained by Reuters July 10, 2019.

Jeffrey Epstein was a wealth manager who was seen with the rich, famous and powerful people. He owned a private island in the Caribbean, homes in Paris and New York City and a New Mexico farm.

Epstein was arrested in July on federal sex-trafficking charges. His arrest brought new attention to old claims that he had sexually abused women and girls. He killed himself in jail last month while awaiting his trial.

For three years, Joi Ito served as director of the MIT Media Lab. He resigned from both the lab and from his position as a professor, the school's president announced on Saturday.

The resignation came a day after The New Yorker reported that the media lab had a bigger fundraising relationship with Epstein than it had admitted earlier. The magazine also said the media lab tried to cover up the nature of the relationship.

In Rhode Island, Brown University announced on Monday that it has placed Peter Cohen, a fundraising director, on leave. This followed a report that Cohen helped cover up Epstein's connections when he was working at the MIT Lab.

A Brown spokesman also said the university did not receive donations from Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein University Donations

MIT was not the only school to receive money from the businessman over the years. He donated tens of millions of dollars to Harvard University and other causes. It made him popular with some professors and scientists. Yet he himself never finished college.

Harvard says it already spent $6.5 million that Epstein donated in 2003. That was before he admitted in court to soliciting a minor for prostitution. The University of Arizona and the University of British Columbia in Canada have said they are not returning the tens of thousands of dollars they received years ago. They said the money came from charitable groups Epstein operated, and they did not know the connection to him at the time.

Ohio State University has not said what will come of the money it received from Epstein, including the $2.5 million he donated in 2007.

MIT Media Lab connection

In a letter on Saturday, MIT President Rafael Reif called the claims in The New Yorker "deeply disturbing." He said the university is asking lawyers to investigate.

Last month, Reif reported that MIT accepted about $800,000 from Epstein over 20 years.

The New Yorker reports that the businessman helped to arrange at least $7.5 million in donations. That includes $2 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and $5.5 million from investor Leon Black.

MIT listed Epstein as "disqualified' in its donor database. However, the Media Lab continued taking gifts from him and marked his donations as anonymous, The New Yorker reported.

Last week, Ito said that Epstein gave him $525,000 for the Media Lab and another $1.2 million for his own investment funds.

Epstein's arrest on July 6 fueled national attention in his case. Many people criticized the 2008 deal that enabled him to avoid more serious federal charges.

Critics question why university professors and other officials would take money from someone like Epstein.

"Like politicians, higher education leaders are addicted to money from big donors," wrote Larry Edelman in The Boston Globe. "New labs, dorms, and performing arts centers aren't cheap."

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story with information from the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

convict - v. to be found guilty of a crime in a court of law

fundraising – n. the organized activity of raising funds (as for an institution or political cause) —often used before another noun

solicit – v. to ask for (something, such as money or help) from people, companies

prostitution – n. the work of a prostitute : the act of having sex in exchange for money

disturb – v. to worry or upset (someone)

arrange – v. to organize the details of something before it happens : to plan (something)

disqualify – v. to stop or prevent (someone) from doing, having, or being a part of something

anonymous – adj. not named or identified

dorm – n. informal of dormitory (a building on a school campus that has rooms where students can live)

cheap – adj. not costing a lot of money