Bookmarked How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (The New Yorker)

New documents show that the M.I.T. Media Lab was aware of Epstein’s status as a convicted sex offender, and that Epstein directed contributions to the lab far exceeding the amounts M.I.T. has publicly admitted.

Ronan Farrow reports on the steps Joi Ito and others took to conceal Jeffrey Epstein’s involvement with the MIT Media Lab.

Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited. On Ito’s calendar, which typically listed the full names of participants in meetings, Epstein was identified only by his initials.

One voice a part of the effort to lift the lid is Signe Swenson, a former a former development associate and alumni coordinator at the lab. She explains the how the message to keep Epstein’s donations secret came from the top. Another employee to speak up is Ethan Zuckerman, who recently resigned in protest:

In 2013, Zuckerman said, he pulled Ito aside after a faculty meeting to express concern about meetings on Ito’s calendar marked “J.E.” Zuckerman recalled saying, “I heard you’re meeting with Epstein. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” and Ito responding, “You know, he’s really fascinating. Would you like to meet him?” Zuckerman declined and said that he believed the relationship could have negative consequences for the lab.

Farrow highlights how Epstein’s association with élite institutions like MIT helped shield him.

The revelations about Epstein’s widespread sexual misconduct, most notably reported by Julie K. Brown in the Miami Herald, have made clear that Epstein used the status and prestige afforded him by his relationships with élite institutions to shield himself from accountability and continue his alleged predation.

In a Twitter thread, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that Epstein’s intent in donating to MIT was not whitewashing, but rather to gain access to powerful men. This all highlights the moral rot and bankruptcy of the techno-elites.

Audrey Watters calls it a ‘plutocratic horror show’.

Rafranz Davis asks when we stop promoting MIT’s products?

Jay Rosen also asks why the New York Times did not publish the information?

Bookmarked How Institutions Survive and Sometimes Thrive: A Challenge to Ralph Waldo Emerson (Howard Gardner)

Some institutions are special, and it is worthwhile to keep them well-functioning, even when the original leadership and members are no longer on the scene. Such survival—and occasional rebirth—is worth considering and worth understanding. I have suggested here some possible factors: the attraction of capable successors to the founding leaders; willingness to pursue new directions without sacrificing core values and robust norms; alertness to shifting funding landscapes; honoring norms as well as regulations; and nurturing talent and providing a comfortable base of operation.

Howard Gardner provides two case studies of MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Project Zero. This includes their vision and leadership. It is intriguing reading in light of the associations with Jeffrey Epstein. Gardner wrote an update based on this:

This blog was written in July 2019 and posted on August 12, 2019. Since then, there has been an upheaval at The Media Lab, and director Joi Ito has resigned. I have been a friend of the Lab for many years and admired much of what Joi Ito has accomplished there. But I was also cognizant of how fragile institutions can be and, accordingly, in the third to last paragraph of the blog, I pointed out that institutions can be undermined by sexual, financial, or ethical scandals. Alas, The Media Lab has been shaken by events and allegations that seem to involve, either directly or indirectly, all three of these elements. Since I believe in the mission of The Media Lab, and what it has accomplished over the last forty years, I hope that it can negotiate this difficult period thoughtfully and responsibly and continue its important work. And I hope that Joi Ito can find the proper channels for his undoubted gifts.

Bookmarked The Moral Rot of the MIT Media Lab (Slate Magazine)

Over the course of the past century, MIT became one of the best brands in the world, a name that confers instant credibility and stature on all who are associated with it. Rather than protect the inherent specialness of this brand, the Media Lab soiled it again and again by selling its prestige to banks, drug companies, petroleum companies, carmakers, multinational retailers, at least one serial sexual predator, and others who hoped to camouflage their avarice with the sheen of innovation. There is a big difference between taking money from someone like Epstein and taking it from Nike or the Department of Defense, but the latter choices pave the way for the former. It is easy to understand why Jeffrey Epstein wanted to get involved with the Media Lab. Unfortunately, it is also easy to understand why Joi Ito got involved with Jeffrey Epstein. The only bad donations were the ones that weren’t received.

Justin Peters discusses the history associated with MIT, the birth of the Media Lab and the choice to soil its specialness, rather than support activists like Aaron Swartz.

According to the Abelson Report, MIT had chosen not to aid Swartz in part because doing so could have sent the wrong message to its institutional partners, which might have interpreted the gesture as MIT coming out as soft on content piracy. And then Swartz died, and the Media Lab was the site of an ice-cream social in his honor. The Media Lab and MIT were capable of anything, it seemed, except meaningful self-reflection.

In a Twitter thread, James Bridle questions the ethics of MIT’s Media Lab and their history in building products to improve people’s lives, only to then pivot into market products.

Replied to Higher Education and Rich People (Blogger)

Look. I’m glad this thing has blown up on them. I hope the whole lot of them are taken down. They disgust me. But it should have happened a long time ago. But it didn’t, and this shows just how tight this nexus is, how close the connections are between billionaires, corporations, government, media, and academia. And they’re not going to be taken down by this, not even by this, because there’s no end to the supply of people willing to give up just a little in order to work for the rich and the powerful.

This is an interesting reflection Stephen. It is easy to say that you would never have followed the same paths, but these paths are complicated where small compromises can compound. I liked your point about being ‘unattractive’.
Bookmarked On Joi and MIT (Medium)

Ok, that’s a lot of words to get to a critical point about the Joi Ito story: Everyone seems to treat it as if the anonymity and secrecy around Epstein’s gift are a measure of some kind of moral failing. I see it as exactly the opposite. IF you are going to take type 3 money, then you should only take it anonymously. And if you take it anonymously, then obviously you will take the many steps detailed by Farrow to keep it secret. Secrecy is the only saving virtue of accepting money like this. And rather than repeating unreflective paeans to “transparency,” we should recognize that in many cases, secrecy is golden.

Lawrence Lessig discusses the different ways universities are funded. He breaks this down into four types:

  • Type 1 is people like Tom Hanks or Taylor Swift — people who are wealthy and whose wealth comes from nothing but doing good.
  • Type 2 is entities like Google or Facebook, or people whose wealth comes from those companies. These are people who are wealthy because of their work within companies of ambiguous good. Some love them. Some hate them. Some think they are the key to all that’s evil in the age that’s coming. Some think they are the key to all that will be good.
  • Type 3 is people who are criminals, but whose wealth does not derive from their crime. This is Epstein, but not just Epstein. It may be that we’ll discover that Epstein got rich by blackmailing people whom he had encouraged or enabled to commit abuse. I doubt it, but it’s possible. Suffice it that when Joi was investigating whether that criminal continued his crime, no one was suggesting that his enormous wealth was the product of blackmail or sex slavery. He was, the world assumed, a brilliant, savant-like investor, who was also a sexual predator.
  • Type 4 is entities and people whose wealth comes from clearly wrongful or harmful or immoral behavior. The RJ Reynolds Foundation, the Sacklers, the Kochs: I recognize that people have different views about these people or entities, but it is not hard to identify the enormous harm that each has caused. Smoking has killed multiples of the German Holocaust. Since 1999, more than 200,000 have died from OxyContin overdoses — four times the number of Americans killed in Vietnam (even if that’s less than a fifth of the number of people killed in that insane war). If there is a single family responsible for the fact that we to this day have no comprehensive legislation addressing climate change, it is the Kochs. This money is blood money. It is wealth that is great because of the harm.

He explains that universities take money from all types. For Lessig, this is why he argued that Joi Ito should not have had to resign and why donations should be anonymous. However, he also adds that he should have stopped Ito from accepting the money.

In response, Siva Vaidhyanathan provides a critique:

He argues that Epstein’s intent in donating to MIT was not whitewashing, but rather to gain access to powerful men. Another reason to donate is the corruption of research. In the end, “the only reason to keep MIT donations secret is to dodge scrutiny.”


In this Twitter thread, Anand Giridharadas explains why he resigned as a juror for MIT’s Disobedience Award. He discusses why he originally agreed, but started questioning his participation when the associations between Joi Ito and Jeffrey Epstein were uncovered. He sort explaination from some of those within MIT, but instead of providing any clarity he was attacked. So he did the only thing he could do, resign.

Billionaires will make their money and turn universities into their intellectual man caves.

Pariahs with cash will redeem themselves through strategic and prestigious giving.

Institutions will take it, selling them reputational makeovers.

And women will continue to be trafficked and abused, and unjust plea deals will continue to be struck, and these universities and labs will continue to be run by men who don’t get it and don’t want to get it.

Unless people step up.

Liked HEWN, No. 320

The problem isn’t just the Media Lab either. (Although my god, let’s address this one right now. Is there any reason it should continue to exist in its current state?) Nor is the problem MIT, an institution that’s repeatedly shown it’s willing to take money from just about anyone to do just about anything, no matter how militaristic, authoritarian, or stupid. The plutocrat-backed neoliberal technocracy is being manufactured at universities around the world, and its corrupt ideology is being laundered by publications and think tanks funded by these same, unethical billionaires. And plenty of folks look the other way because they’re more committed to being in networks with the “innovators” than they are in building a world that is caring and just.

Liked HEWN, No. 319

Anthony Burgess’s novel — a novel about a violent youth subculture, sure, but also one about behavioral modification — was published in 1962, a year after B. F. Skinner published his book The Analysis of Behavior, as well as his article “Teaching Machines.” The Stanley Kubrick film came out in 1971, the same year Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity. (It’s odd, I find, when people today believe that behaviorism is wrong because it doesn’t work.)

Bookmarked HEWN, No. 318

Much of my work in the past has been to uncover the networks of powerful people who fund education technology and education reform. I believe that money shapes a product; it doesn’t just underwrite it. And I’ve hoped that educators and administrators would think more critically about the affinities that lay beneath and within the tools they mandate students and school use. (Like, say, if a “personalized learning” platform is backed by a dude who thinks the Nineteenth Amendment was a bad idea. I mean, WTF.)

Audrey Watters reflects upon the associated of MIT Media Lab with Jeffrey Epstein and the subsequent resignations of Ethan Zuckerman and visiting scholar Nathan Matias.